Va'era: Greatness Through 'Grateness'

Make new friends!  Increase your influence!  Be more successful!  Make more money!  Be healthier!  Live happier!  

These sound like claims from a daytime TV commercial, a promotional video, a new mood-enhancing drug advertisement, or other come-ons. But such results, and much more, are promised by a single word central to Judaism: gratitude.  Gratitude … for what?  For starters, for an inanimate object.

The first of the ten plagues with which G-d stuck Egypt was water turned into blood.  To do this, G-d instructed Moses to tell Aaron to extend Aaron’s staff and hand over the waters of Egypt.  [Exodus 7:19] 

Why did G-d have Aaron do this, rather than simply telling Moses to do it? According to the Midrash (Exod. R. 9.10):

R. Tanhum taught: Why were the waters not smitten by Moses himself? Because the Holy One said to Moses: It is not proper that the waters that protected you when you were cast into the river [as an infant] should now be smitten by you. As you live, they shall be smitten by none other than Aaron.

So, had Moses inflicted the plague upon the waters, it would have been ingratitude!  And G-d would not have that. 

In his book, Love Your Neighbor (Aish HaTorah Publications, 1977), Rabbi Zelig Pliskin teaches:

We learn from this verse that if a person derives pleasure from an object, he should show his gratitude by being careful not to cause harm or damage to the object, even though it would not suffer pain.  The Talmud (Bava Kama 92b) states: ‘If you drank water from a well, do not throw stones at it.’  [I have also seen this passage translated as, “’Cast no mud’ and ‘Cast no clods’ into the well from which you have drunk.”-AJL] Although this advice is basically meant as a metaphor for people who have given you something, the literal meaning should not be ignored. [Citations omitted]. Since this is true concerning inanimate objects, all the more so must we show gratitude toward people who have shown us kindness. (Rabbi Chayim Shuelevitz)

We know that, for all sorts of ethical reasons, gratitude is one of the most important character traits we should cultivate.  The Torah requires us, for example, to Love our Neighbor as Ourselves (don’t we want our neighbors to appreciate what we have done for them?), to Judge Others Justly (we are more likely to unfairly criticize or be angry with others if we have forgotten things they did for us), and to Not Bear Grudges nor Seek Revenge (we’re much less likely to do so if we are also at least somewhat grateful to them for something).  Many additional ethical grounds for gratitude could be offered.     
But what may be less obvious is that it’s greatly to our own benefit to be grateful. For example:

People to whom we express gratitude are more likely to feel appreciated and to help us again (although this should not be our motivation).  

People to whom we express gratitude are more likely to speak well of us to others, which may prompt others to also help us (again, though, not only shouldn’t this be our motivation, if it is, such will be transparent and likely counterproductive).  

When our children, grandchildren, their friends, our employees, and others experience us feeling and expressing gratitude, they may internalize our actions, thus making us more effective and influential transmitters of our values.  (Alternatively, as the Yiddish proverb has it, “Az der talmid iz a voiler, iz der rebbi oich a voiler.  If the student is successful, the teacher gets the praise.”) 

We will be considered – and will actually be – more positive, optimistic, productive, and enjoyable to be around. 

When we do experience life’s inevitable difficulties and set-backs, we can maintain a more balanced overall assessment of our life. 

If we are “grateful” to objects from which we benefit, we will likely take greater care of them, resulting in greater service and postponed or averted replacement expense.  

Perhaps most fundamentally, gratitude is essential for our happiness.  As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes in You Shall Be Holy, “At the very moment that we cultivate the feeling of gratitude, we also cultivate a feeling of being loved.”  Conversely, “An ungrateful person reveals not only a suspicious and mean-spirited disposition, but how profoundly unloved she feels. Ungrateful people cannot imagine that others care enough about them to be generous with no thought of quid pro quo.”  

Perhaps this suggests a twist on the popular expression, “Don’t worry, be happy!”  Instead, we should say and feel: “Be grateful (to) be happi(er).”  
Each day, try to feel genuinely grateful to someone or something – and tell them/it.  If you get stuck, remember another Yiddish proverb: “If you cannot be grateful for what you have received, then be thankful for what you have been spared.”  Such as my not being T-boned this afternoon by the large gardening truck that simply raced past the stop sign in my neighborhood, causing me to slam on my brakes in astonishment!  I'm certainly grateful for the inanimate objects (brakes) that may have saved my life, and to their designers and manufacturers, etc. 

Shabbat shalom… and I’m grateful to you for reading this!

Make new friends!  Increase your influence!  Be more successful!  Make more money!  Be healthier!  Live happier!  
Be Grateful. 

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If charity cost nothing, the world would be full of philanthropists.
Jewish Proverb