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On Gratitude

V’achalta v’savata u’veirachta

You shall eat, and be satiated, and give thanks (Deuteronomy 8:10)

As some of you may know, those three Hebrew words – V’achalta v’savata u’veirachta – comprise the proof text for the Birkat Ha’mazon, known in English as the Grace After Meals. Birkat Ha’mazon is a very long series of blessings of gratitude that are meant to be recited – and are often sung boisterously – after every meal. (Having grown up singing this every day after lunch at Jewish day school, I still mostly know it by heart.) In addition to offering blessings before eating, such as the Motzi, the blessing over bread, our Sages determined from this verse of Torah that we should also give thanks after we eat. Their decision was based on the order of the words: eat, be satiated, then give thanks!

Why should we be required to give thanks after we eat? The verses in Deuteronomy that immediately follow explain that when you have entered the good land that YHVH is giving to you, and have plenty to eat, and have built fine houses to live in, and you have become prosperous, “beware lest your heart grow haughty…and you say to yourselves, ‘it was my own power and strength that won this wealth for me!’” No, you must remember that your abundance is a gift from God, the Source of All. (8:11-17)

The Torah, as always, understands human nature. When we are famished or thirsty, and someone offers us refreshment, we might find ourselves exclaiming, unbidden, “Oh, thank God!” with a sigh, knowing that imminent relief to our suffering has arrived. But when we are satiated, we quickly forget the need we so desperately carried just moments earlier. That’s the way we are. We get used to our good fortune and our privilege, assume that as our baseline, and then focus on our next need. We forget to give thanks.

I recently read about a study that explored how quickly people become accustomed to new circumstances. For example, when we get faster internet speed, how long does it take before we expect that speed all the time? How long before we find ourselves complaining when the speed is too slow, when just a short time ago we were thrilled with our computer’s new capacity? I don’t remember the details of the study, but the answer is: it takes almost no time at all. And from there it is but a small and predictable step to feeling unsatisfied and even self-satisfied, having forgotten completely about our blessed good fortune.

Therefore Judaism instructs that we must practice gratitude before the need is met, and after the need is met – in other words, all the time! Gratitude is the antidote to dissatisfaction. It is impossible to kvetch and keep a straight face when you dwell in a moment of appreciation.

You shall eat, and be satiated, and give thanks. When a physical need is involved, the feeling of satiation comes only after the need is met. But with spiritual and emotional needs, the reverse is true. If you can fill yourself with gratitude, lacks that you may have felt a moment before disappear! It is quite wonderful: when I am counting my blessings, when I am focusing on all the good that is bestowed upon me in any moment, at that moment I lack nothing. I fill and overflow with gratefulness. My cup runneth over.

Prayer is designed to carry us into this blessed state. You can do it right now: you can still your unquiet spirit, you can silence your endless whining simply by noticing the unearned bounty that has been bestowed upon you in this moment. Notice the next breath that has been granted to you, gaze at the greenery outside your window, feel the pulse sending life through your veins and arteries, all of them a gift to you from the Universe…and give thanks. These infinite gifts cannot be bought or sold; they are literally priceless. They have been given to us gratis, freely. And the only way we can even begin to return this kindness is with our own gratitude, freely offered.

Then I might say: You shall give thanks, and then feel satiated with life, and then – if you’re hungry – go ahead and eat something! Enjoy every bite. We are truly blessed, and when we take the time to count our blessings, we remember and rejoice.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan