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Path of the Soul #3: Gratitude

May 9, 2009 | by Dr. Alan Morinis

Making something of beauty out of what we do have, incomplete as it may be.

The Mussar teachings on the attitude of gratitude are tough, because they don't let us feel sorry for ourselves, no matter how little we may have. One Mussar master began a talk with a thump on the table and the words, "It is enough that a human being is alive!" Then he ended his talk right there.

There is a story -- maybe an urban legend, but full of truth nonetheless -- concerning the famous violinist Itzhak Perlman. One evening, Perlman was in New York to give a concert. As a child he had been stricken with polio and getting on stage is no small feat for him. He wears braces on both legs and walks with two crutches. Perlman crossed the stage painfully slowly, until he reached the chair in which he seated himself to play.

As soon as he appeared on stage that night, the audience applauded and then waited respectfully as he made his way slowly across the stage. He took his seat, signaled to the conductor, and began to play.

No sooner had he finished the first few bars than one of the strings on his violin snapped with a report like gunshot. At that point Perlman was close enough to the beginning of the piece that it would have been reasonable to bring the concert to a halt while he replaced the string to begin again. But that's not what he did. He waited a moment and then signaled the conductor to pick up just where they had left off.

Perlman now had only three strings with which to play his soloist part. He was able to find some of the missing notes on adjoining strings, but where that wasn't possible, he had to rearrange the music on the spot in his head so that it all still held together.

He played with passion and artistry, spontaneously rearranging the symphony right through to the end. When he finally rested his bow, the audience sat for a moment in stunned silence. And then they rose to their feet and cheered wildly. They knew they had been witness to an extraordinary display of human skill and ingenuity.

"Sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much beautiful music you can still make with what you have left."

Perlman raised his bow to signal for quiet. "You know," he said, "sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much beautiful music you can still make with what you have left."

We have to wonder, was he speaking of his violin strings or his crippled body? And is it true only for artists? We are all lacking something, and so we are all challenged to answer the question: Do we have the attitude of making something of beauty out of what we do have, incomplete as it may be?

The Hebrew term for gratitude is hikarat hatov, which means, literally, "recognizing the good." Practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours.

If you've lost your job, but you still have your family and health, you have something to be grateful for.

If you can't move around except in a wheelchair but your mind is as sharp as ever, you have something to be grateful for.

If you've broken a string on your violin, and you still have three more, you have something to be grateful for.

When you open up to the trait of gratitude, you see clearly and accurately how much good there is in your life.

When you open up to the trait of gratitude, you see clearly and accurately how much good there is in your life. Gratitude affirms. Those things you are lacking are still there, and in reaching for gratitude no one is saying you ought to put on rose-colored glasses to obscure those shortcomings. But most of us tend to focus so heavily on the deficiencies in our lives that we barely perceive the good that counterbalances them.

There is no limit to what we don't have and if that is where we put our focus, then our lives will inevitably be filled with endless dissatisfaction. This is the ethos that lies behind the great biblical proverb, "Who is rich? Those who rejoice in their own lot" (Pirkei Avot 4:1).

When you live charged with gratitude, you will give thanks for anything or anyone who has benefited you, whether they meant to or not. Imagine a prayer of thanks springing to your lips when the driver in the car next to you lets you merge without protest, or when the water flows from the tap, or the food is adequate?

When gratitude is this well established, it is a sign of a heart that has been made right and whole. Gratitude can't coexist with arrogance, resentment, and selfishness. The Hasidic teacher Rebbe Nachman of Breslov writes, "Gratitude rejoices with her sister joy and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. Gratitude doesn't much like the old cronies of boredom, despair and taking life for granted."

To what and whom should we feel thankful? In the Torah, when Moses brought the plagues onto Egypt, he wasn't the one who initiated turning the Nile River into blood and bringing frogs from the river. His brother Aaron invoked those plagues. The medieval commentator Rashi explains that since the river had protected Moses when he was an infant, he could not start a plague against it. God was teaching Moses a powerful lesson in gratitude: we can open in gratitude even to inanimate objects.

Whenever Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the Kotzker Rebbe, replaced a pair of worn out shoes, he would neatly wrap up the old ones in newspaper before placing them in the trash, and he would declare, "How can I simply toss away such a fine pair of shoes that have served me so well these past years!?" I felt the same way when I gave away my 1984 Honda that had ferried me so reliably for 18 years.

The Mussar teacher Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian (1872 - 1970) was once talking to a student after prayers, and at the same time was folding up his tallis [prayer shawl]. The tallis was large and he had to rest it on a bench to fold it. After he had finished the folding, Reb Elyah noticed that the bench was dusty, and so he headed out to fetch a towel to wipe it off. The student to whom he was speaking realized what Reb Elyah was doing and ran to get the towel for him. Reb Elyah held up his hand. "No! No! I must clean it myself, for I must show my gratitude to the bench upon which I folded my tallis1."

If we can be grateful to rivers, shoes, cars, and benches, which help us involuntarily, how much more so to human beings who have free will and who help us consciously out of the goodness of their hearts? Or to the mysterious source out of which our lives have come? When Leah, wife of the patriarch Jacob, had her fourth child, she named him "Yehudah," which means, "I am grateful," to reflect her gratitude to God for the gift of another son. The name Yehudah is the source of the Hebrew name of the Jewish people (Yehudim), revealing the very direct tie between Judaism and gratitude.

Gratitude opens the heart and that's why it provides a fine orientation equally to the inanimate, human and divine dimensions of the world.

A simple and effective way to practice gratitude is by making giving thanks part of your everyday life. For example, it is an established Jewish practice to recite 100 such blessings a day. The term for "blessing" in Hebrew is bracha, which comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for "knee." When you say a blessing, it is as if you have bent your knee in an act of gratitude. The habit of saying blessings can remind you to be thankful when you hit a green light, or the salad is fresh, or the garden is getting the rain it needs, or your child came home from school as usual.

Can you see how such a practice might slowly but insistently change your orientation to the world and your life?


1. from Reb Elyah by David Schlossberg, p.121.
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