Out of gratitude flow many positive emotions

If there was a festival in the Jewish calendar called Thanksgiving, this week — not last — would be the most appropriate time to commemorate it.
Feeling and expressing gratitude is an essential virtue, from which flows a stream of other positive emotions. One of the natural impediments to this emotion is a sense of entitlement. Sometimes this self-centered approach stems from conditioning, like a child who has always been handed whatever he desired; when the child throws a temper tantrum, parents immediately respond. So, carrying this instinctive habit into adulthood, the person adopts the same pattern in relating to God. Whenever things don’t turn out in the desired way, or some pain is experienced, the natural response is to believe that life is unfair, that he or she deserves better. These negative emotions cloud the recognition of the many blessings.
In contrast, someone who is aware of life’s fragility and inequality — the extent to which others are much less fortunate — can better appreciate all the little gifts and luxuries. Every family milestone reached is humbling. The mind remains free of expectations. The notion that he is not owed anything, in turn, fuels hard work and provokes gratitude for every good thing that comes his way.
Leah gives thanks
This week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, relates the birth of most of Yaakov’s children, who later form the 12 tribes of Israel, beginning with Leah’s sons — Reuben, Shimon, and Levi. Leah’s fourth son she names Yehudah (Judah), “the royal son” from whom comes the direct line of Jewish kings, from David to the eventual redeemer. [This is the only name in the entire Bible which has, within it, all 4 letters of God’s essential name Havayah (yud-hei-vav-hei) along with an additional letter daled, which hints at his descendent David.]
Leah named him Yehudah, from the root hoda’ah, meaning “to express gratitude.” The Torah relates (Genesis 29:35): “And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, “This time, I will thank the Lord! Therefore, she named him Yehudah, and [then] she stopped giving birth.”
A classic teaching (Talmud, Tractate Brachot, 7b) is linked to this verse: Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: “From the day that the Almighty created this world, no human being thanked Him until Leah came and thanked Him, it is written: “This time I shall thank God.” (The simple meaning of “this time” is in relation to the previous births, but the deeper meaning is the first time in history.)
The commentaries are puzzled by this statement for obvious reasons. There are many people in the Torah who expressed gratitude, long before Leah came onto the scene. In fact, the content of Chapter 139 of Psalms, according to Jewish tradition is attributed to the first human being — Adam — who declares, “I shall thank You for in an awesome, wondrous way I was fashioned; Your works are wondrous, and my soul knows it very well.”
Therefore, the intention behind the statement of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is not that nobody expressed thanks before Leah, but rather that her naming of Yehuda was somehow novel, or a deeper expression of gratitude. How so?
Various reasons are offered for her distinctive thanksgiving. Some explain that Leah was able to focus on the good, even while enduring a difficult and disappointing life, feeling second-best to her sister Rachel. Others explain that, unlike the earlier characters who marveled after being saved through a miraculous event, or could detect clear divine intervention, Leah, however, acknowledged the wonders within the seemingly natural process — the gift of each new soul that enters the world.
Furthermore, she prophetically foresaw that Jacob would have 12 children, who would be their foundations of the Jewish people. And she would be the largest contributor to this legacy. The main feature, the commentaries explain, that infused her gratitude with more power was her recognition that such an opportunity was a pure gift. After receiving an additional portion in the big family picture — something she didn’t earn — she expressed her thanks in a name that would endure.
Jewish ethical works that deal with self-refinement point to this superior quality. The ultimate perception, which requires training to instill until it becomes second nature, is that he is not entitled to anything — whatever one ends up receiving is a gift of loving kindness. In line with this attitude, when someone praises God, it should be with a sense of joy and inner emptiness, not burden. “The poor man speaks [prays] with supplications…” [Proverbs 18:23] and because he feels “poor” rather than accomplished, the words penetrate with more sincerity.
That is why the tribe of Yehudah establishes the line of Jewish kings. The sense of humility, the realization that one must give thanks for everything, is a crucial requirement for an important leader, who can easily become too proud.
Two meanings
The linguistic root of Yehudah, the Hebrew word hod, has several subtle meanings. There is expressing thanks for a gift or kind gesture, like the modern Hebrew version “todah.” Then there is a sense of hod as acknowledgment of the truth. One connection between these two meanings is that in order to feel gratitude, one must first perceive the reality, recognize the blessing or appreciate the wonders in living
To acknowledge also requires humility: the ability to set one’s immediate desires and preconceptions aside, to be silent and momentarily withdraw to pay attention to something beyond immediate concerns. So, humility, acknowledgment and gratitude intertwine. In the mystical tradition, the spiritual state corresponding to the power of hod is also called temimut (sincerity). The greatness of Leah’s expression incorporated all these.
The Torah describes Leah as the “elder,” which, in mystical code, hints at the faculty of understanding. She also represents humility. The source for her deep thanksgiving resulted from the recognition (understanding) that I don’t deserve anything. The ability to be consciously aware of and express appreciation for every breath, every movement of a limb, and moment of life is captured in Yehudah.
Incidentally, the term “Jew” is derived from his name. And we are called Yehudim to emphasize the importance of this character trait: a continual sense of recognition, feeling gratitude, then expressing it in speech.
From focused to compound gratitude
It is, therefore, fitting that the root word hod — to acknowledge and be grateful — permeates our traditional daily prayers. There are different forms of gratitude, that work in a progression as we move through the siddur.
First, there’s a general acknowledgment, like in the “modeh ani lefanecha…,” the short phrase uttered immediately as we open our eyes each morning.
This first thanksgiving of the day, as we shift from dream state into consciousness, sensing our soul reinvigorating the body after having been guarded in the heavens overnight, is gratefulness for receiving another day to enjoy and accomplish — like a newborn baby entering the world. Here, gratitude is immediate, not prompted by any contemplation. It also sets the tone for our mindset that day.
Then comes a more focused gratitude in the stream of blessings and Psalms. Similarly, as we move through the day, with our mental faculties more alert, we can generate a gratitude from reflection — such as the wonderment of the underlying intricacy and harmony in the human body, how every organ must function perfectly just for us to breath, walk around and digest. “Let every breath thank God.” (Psalms 150) Or the gratitude for having an abundance of food. Or the gifts of the main relationships in our life. In this compound gratitude, understanding and emotions are also mixed into thanksgiving: The more details one sees, the more appreciation, which in turn stimulates a current of positivity.

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