Gratitude has become a buzzword, and that can be a good thing or not. We have studies showing how gratitude leads to healthy living and today we are told to “practice” gratitude and keep gratitude journals. Let’s start with a definition from Google (always a good place to start):
Gratitude is a positive emotion that involves being thankful and appreciative and is associated with several mental and physical health benefits. When you experience gratitude, you feel grateful for something or someone in your life and respond with feelings of kindness, warmth and other forms of generosity.
Now something a little more from Google — the three parts of gratitude:
According to Dr. Robert Emmons, a leading researcher on the topic, there are three stages of gratitude: 1) recognizing what we are grateful for, 2) acknowledging it and lastly, 3) appreciating it. In other words, appreciation is the final component and the last stage in the gratitude process.
But what does Judaism have to say about gratitude? Here is a story from Rabbi Ben Zoma (stories are truly the best way to teach!):
A grateful guest who comes to dinner will say: “How much trouble did my host take for me! How many kinds of wine did he bring before us! How many kinds of cuts of meat did he bring before us…and all the trouble that he took for me!” However, an ungrateful guest will say, “How little trouble did this household take…I ate only a loaf of his bread. I drank only a cup of his wine. He went to all this trouble only to provide for his wife and children.” (Tosefta Berachot 6:2)
Rabbi Marc Katz looked at Ben Zoma’s story and wrote about the difference between the two guests. Before you read further, can you see what Rabbi Katz found to be the problem? Once you see it, everything becomes clear and teaches us the important lesson of humility. The difference is the one word “only.” The first guest sees all that the host put on the table and the second guest sees what is missing — and beyond that, the guest feels entitled to what is perceived as missing. Humility makes us stop and look at our blessings — we must be happy with what we have. Rabbi Ben Zoma in Pirke Avot 4:1 says: “Who is rich? One who is happy with what he has!”
As long as I was Googling (and you can Google Ben Zoma to learn more about him), I looked for the definition of the word “practice.” I am a former musician who used to spend hours in a room practicing so I know a lot about practice, but here is the definition: to perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency. Some common synonyms of practice are custom, habit, usage, and wont. While all these words mean “a way of acting fixed through repetition,” practice suggests an act or method followed with regularity and usually through choice. When you think of gratitude, think of how to make it part of your life. That can only be done through practice and repetition until it becomes habit. And most important, it becomes who you are! The best thing about the practice of gratitude is that it doesn’t cost anything and it can start immediately. Plus it is a skill which means it can be learned and taught! So even if gratitude is part of your life and who you are, the next step is to teach through modeling and intention.
Laura Seymour is Camp director emeritus and Jewish Experiential Learning director at the Aaron Family JCC.