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Monday, 7 December 2015

Where do you fall on the gratitude spectrum?

Daf Yomi Sotah 40


When I first began in the rabbinate, I asked a colleague who the greatest American pulpit rabbi was.  Being young and fresh, I wanted to model myself after a successful senior rabbi.  My friend responded that it really depended upon what criteria were considered.  Some rabbis excel in certain areas, some in others.  But after all said and done, my colleague felt that the most important attribute for a rabbi was to be a mensch.  If a rabbi isn’t a shining light of menschlichkeit, everything else is meaningless.

Which rabbi then was the biggest mensch?  According to my friend: Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Kehilath Jeshurun in New York holds that title, hands down.  And he proceeded to demonstrate:  Rabbi Lookstein will offer his sincere gratitude for even the simplest of assistance.  For example, let’s say you’re walking along the street and pass by Rabbi Lookstein just as the wind blows his hat off.  You bend down, pick it up, and hand it to him.  You can expect a letter in the mail the next day on his official stationery thanking you for your kind act!  Now that’s a mensch! 

When the chazan recites Modim (the blessing of thanksgiving), what should the congregation say? 
Rav says: We thank you Hashem our G-d for inspiring us to give thanks to You.
Shmuel says: the G-d of all flesh for inspiring us to give thanks to You.
Rabbi Simai says: our Creator, the Creator of creation for inspiring us to give thanks to You.
The Nehardeans say in the name of Rabbi Simai: blessings and thanks to Your great name for the fact that you have given us life and sustained us; for that we are inspired to give thanks to You.
Rav Acha bar Yaakov would conclude as follows: Similarly, grant us life and be gracious to us and bring us together and gather our exiles to Your holy courtyard to keep Your statutes and perform Your will with a complete heart, for that we are inspired to give thanks to You.
Rashi explains: Each of these rabbis are adding to the previous statements (not replacing them).
Rav Papa says: Therefore, let us recite all of the above!

We’re all familiar with this prayer, called Modim DerabananThe Rabbis’ Thanks.  It is so called, because of this Gemara where we learn that the prayer is a compilation of the opinions of the various rabbis.  Unlike the other parts of the chazan’s repetition of the Shemonei Esreh, where we simply respond Amen, during the Modim prayer, we give thanks independently.   After all, how could someone say thank-you on your behalf?  You need to personally offer thanks!

What’s striking about this discussion in the Gemara is that there appears to be a spectrum of gratitude.  Rashi points out that each rabbi’s suggestion is not an amendment to the previous rabbi; it’s an addition.  Each ensuing rabbi adds more to the amount of thanks he offers.  Some offer a little thanks, others offer a bit more, and Rav Papa would be grateful to the max!

Where do you fall on the gratitude spectrum?   Are you a Rabbi Lookstein, grateful for even the smallest kindness; or do you obliviously accept people’s generosity along with the Almighty’s great kindnesses, without thinking twice? 

When you go to a simcha (celebration), it goes without saying that most people first go and thank the baalei simcha (hosts).  That's certainly true of most people.  But the Rabbanit and I watch with amazement when people will come to a simcha or a sponsored Kiddush and not even bother to get up and thank the hosts.  Or they'll sit around chatting when it's time to dance and bring joy to the bride and groom!  Are they ungrateful or simply oblivious to the fact that someone has invested money, effort, and time to give them a good lunch or dinner?

South Africans have a great minhag of gratitude.  Ever invited a South African Jew to a simcha?  If you have, you'll know that the next day, they call you up and thank you for a wonderful evening.  Now that's a minhag worth extending to other communities!   

Gratitude comes more naturally for some than others.  Your job in life is to strive to move along the gratitude spectrum, constantly increasing your appreciation for what Heaven and your fellow human beings have done for you.  May you take conscious note of your every move and discern whether there might be someone you should be thanking for the goodness in your life!