Today is February 18, 2019 -
As you may have noticed, I talk, preach, teach, and write often about gratitude. I do this for several important reasons. First, gratitude is a seminal Jewish value, ranking alongside “hesed”—loving kindness, “anavah”—humility, and “rachamim”—compassion.
We are taught in Pirkei Avot, for example, that the “happy person is one, who is happy with the person’s lot in life.” The word “Jewish,” in fact, comes from the name of the Matriarch Leah’s 4th child, whom she named “Judah,” which means “thanks” or “appreciation”.
A second reason is that we live in a secular society that teaches a very different lesson, especially at this holiday time of year—this message being that whatever we have, it is not enough, and that we need more! We are being constantly bombarded with advertising messages, telling us that the model that we purchased a year or two ago, which is still doing its job, is now obsolete, and that we will somehow be better off by purchasing the newer, more attractive, and sexier model.
And, yes, there is an important third reason. Being a product of our secular society, I, too, continue to fall prey to the above messages, taking what I have for granted, and wanting something more or different. I thus also speak and write about gratitude to remind myself of the salutary teachings offered by our Tradition.
The wisdom of Judaism in this area was recently brought home to me in a very powerful way. As most of you know, I, along with thousands of other Merrimack Valley residents, including several other members of our own synagogue community, were without gas, heat, etc., for almost 3 months as a result of the actions of Columbia Gas. During this time period, Columbia Gas employees and subcontractors would drop by and want to come into my house, unannounced, at all hours of the day and night, 7 days a week to inspect the damage done.
With no gas, I, along with thousands of others, had to cook on hot plates, go to the gym or friends’ homes to take hot showers, use electric space heaters, move into trailers, motels, etc., and/or have bulky and noisy generators placed outside, and portable heating units inside, our homes to stay warm.
Just several days before Thanksgiving, approximately 3 months after the gas explosions occurred, my gas was finally restored. While I continue to feel great empathy for the hundreds of families still without gas, a feeling of deep gratitude also came over me as I thought to myself, “How wonderful to have my house back and to have things gradually return to normal”—no more disruptions at all hours of the day and night; no more having to cook only on a hot plate; and no more noisy and bulky machinery inside and outside my home.
This experience thus brought home to me a valuable lesson about gratitude. I have lived in the same rented house, since I moved to Andover some 6 years ago to become your Rabbi. When I first moved into my house, I would often express thanks and appreciation to God, to family and friends, etc., for being able to live in such a lovely home, neighborhood, etc. As time went on, however, I found myself, without even realizing it, starting to take my home and neighborhood more and more for granted, focusing more on the age of and other drawbacks to the house.
This valuable lesson about gratitude that I was just reminded of has called to mind a lovely Hasidic story, which I would like to share now with you.
“A poor man lived with his wife and six children in a very small one-room house. They were always getting in each other’s way and there was so little space they could hardly breathe! Finally, the man could stand it no more. He talked to his wife and asked her what to do. “Go see the rabbi,” she told him, and after arguing a while, he went.
The rabbi greeted him and said, “I see something is troubling you. Whatever it is, you can tell me.” And so the poor man told the rabbi how miserable things were at home with him, his wife, and the six children all eating and living and sleeping in one room. The poor man told the rabbi, “We’re even starting to yell and fight with each other. Life couldn’t be worse.”
The rabbi thought very deeply about the poor man’s problem. Then he said, “Do exactly as I tell you and things will get better. Do you promise?” “I promise,” the poor man said.
The rabbi then asked the poor man a strange question. “Do you own any animals?” “Yes,” he said. “I have one cow, one goat, and some chickens.” “Good,” the rabbi said. “When you get home, take all the animals into your house to live with you.”
The poor man was astonished to hear this advice from the rabbi, but he had promised to do exactly what the rabbi said. So he went home and took all the farm animals into the tiny one-room house. The next day the poor man ranback to see the rabbi. “What have you done to me, Rabbi?” he cried. “It’s awful. I did what you told me and the animals
are all over the house! Rabbi, help me!”
The rabbi listened and said calmly, “Now go home and take the chickens back outside.” The poor man did as the rabbi said, but hurried back again the next day. “The chickens are gone, but Rabbi, the goat!” he moaned. “The goat is smashing up all the furniture and eating everything in sight!” The good rabbi said, “Go home and remove the goat and may God bless you.”
So the poor man went home and took the goat outside. But he ran back again to see the rabbi, crying and wailing. “What a nightmare you have brought to my house, Rabbi! With the cow it’s like living in a stable! Can human beings live with an animal like this?” The rabbi said sweetly, “My friend, you are right. May God bless you. Go home now and take the cow out of your house.” And the poor man went quickly home and took the cow out of the house.
The next day he came running back to the rabbi again. “O Rabbi,” he said with a big smile on his face, “we have sucha good life now. The animals are all out of the house. The house is so quiet and we’ve got room to spare! What a joy!”
So the next time that I am teaching about gratitude, please know that, in addition to my wanting to remind you of this important Jewish value, I have likely come to realize that I have started, for the umpteenth time, to take one or more of the blessings in my life for granted, and that I need to also remind myself that true and lasting peace and happiness come from gratitude and appreciation for what we have far more than what we don’t have and think we need.
Wishing Your Loved Ones A Warm And Light Filled Chanukah!
Rabbi Howard Mandell