By Rabbi Dan Lewin
To be effective, all positive qualities — whether humility, confidence, trust, happiness, gratitude, love, etc. — should not be cultivated independently of the spectrum of other attributes. Nor should they remain a general vague feeling. It is important to direct that positive emotion in a specific context, wherein the details matter.
To this end, each new month in the Jewish yearly cycle brings a unique energy and opportunity for personal development. At the conclusion of last week, we entered the final month of Adar. Aside from the obvious association with the holiday of Purim, and all the festive momentum that bursts forth on that day, there is a flavor that immediately strikes at the onset of this month — as expressed in the Talmud (Taanit 29a): “When Adar arrives, we increase in simcha (happiness).” This means extra focus on turning what, for many, can be a theoretical emotion into a tangible experience.
There are similar biblical commands that seem to say something similar, such as “you shall rejoice in your festivals” (Deuteronomy 16:14). These are prescribed joyous days in the calendar, but none affect the entire month. And this year, a Jewish leap year wherein a month is added, we receive a double dose of Adar and all that it brings.
One of the pathways to happiness is the practice of another foundational emotion — gratitude. These days, setting aside time for daily reflection to provoke gratitude is a popular therapeutic recommendation, though it can easily turn stale. Too often, it ends up being a meek attempt to feel some sparks of serenity amid an ongoing struggle. But in Jewish practice, this emotion must remain fresh, potent and active. And the main internal obstacle to gratitude is not so much the quality of entitlement or unappreciativeness, as it is forgetfulness — we’re on to the next challenge.
There are five general components, progressive mental stages, to awakening a deeper gratitude:
Recognizing the source
This first step, the primary ingredient, is feeling thankful while acknowledging the source: that one’s blessings are not random, but given from G-d. This emotion, flowing from an underlying faith, lies in contrast to the more universal and arbitrary sense of gratitude — “embracing all of life’s blessings” — or worse, the mistake of attributing success to intermediaries (e.g., “the gods were looking down on me”), which Jewish ethical works discuss at length.
That’s why the Hebrew words for “acknowledgment” and “thanksgiving” share a common root. Like the first statement upon waking each morning: “Modeh Ani lefanecha…” (I offer thanks to You). It’s about a specific and direct relationship with the Creator, the eternal cause for all existence, who provides us with a new opportunity each day.
Kindness, not merit
Just feeling grateful for all your G-d-given talents and resources is still insufficient. Rather, one must recognize the blessings are a result of chesed, divine kindness. If, for example, while reflecting, one contemplates further: Why am I receiving this kindness? Is it (solely) because I deserve it? The answer is usually “no.” Rather, it’s G-d’s way of communicating love and care.
So, next time you eat a good meal, instead of diving in to derive pleasure, pause and interpret the deeper message behind the nourishment — it’s G-d saying “I care about you.” And that’s one reason we say “blessings” over food and drink, both before and after partaking.
The purpose of thinking about our many blessings is to generate a higher caliber gratitude: Torah teaches that although physically we are an insignificant speck in a vast intricate universe, spiritually we can become partners with the Creator in the grander purpose — to mend and uplift this material world by introducing more holiness and meaning into it.
In this stage of gratitude, reflecting on our blessings serves as a reminder of our larger purpose — all the resources that have been given are to help you succeed in implementing the divine vision for your life’s path.
Moving from thought or emotion to speech, we must remember to thank G-d — with our breath — for the fact that we are partners in achieving the purpose for existence. The mystical sources explain how verbalization is key to internalization, which is also why the Jewish prayer service contains an entire section of psalms (“verses of praise”) carefully chosen as a buildup to the Shema (the ultimate contemplation of the supreme unity and personal divine providence).
The result of this pointed gratitude — the four steps above — is a unique form of happiness. The birth of this new emotion, in turn, brings more blessings. Then blessings provoke more gratitude, which leads to more joy — and the cycle continues.
Since this final month of Adar has just arrived, where we increase in joy, may we have many reasons to do so! As the verse in the Megillah of Purim states: “For the Jews there was light, joy, gladness and honor” (Esther 8:16), and we add in Havdalah, “so too, may it be for us.”
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.