Why does Judaism care about gratitude?
While Jews were able to enjoy the rare, simultaneous celebration of Thanksgiving and Chanukah this year, Judaism has long been had something in common with the American holiday.
It’s a theme that runs from Torah to Talmud, from Psalms to the siddur (prayer book) and into aspects of everyday life.
Liturgically, there actually is a timely connection between Chanukah and thanksgiving — an additional prayer in the daily “Amidah” that references God’s role in defeating the Seleucids, after which the Jews entered the Temple “to give thanks and praise to Your great name.” But that message of gratitude to God is just one of many examples that pervades Jewish philosophy.
Biblically, there’s the example in Deuteronomy when God commands the Jews, upon entering Israel, to bring the first fruits of the land to the Temple and express gratitude for the Exodus from Egypt and the arrival in the Promised Land.
There are more modern instances, too. As Rabbi Jocee Hudson of Temple Israel of Hollywood recently wrote in the Journal, Jewish tradition holds that upon waking, one should recite the prayer “Modeh Ani,” a prayer that helps “root us in gratitude, offer[ing] us a daily connection between thanksgiving and light.” Upon exiting the bathroom, drinking a cup of water or even snacking on potato chips, tradition holds that a prayer of gratitude and acknowledgment to God is in order.
The last and final section of the “Shemoneh Esrei” — the climax of each of the three daily prayer services — contains three prayers whose purpose is expressing gratitude to God.
One question in response to Judaism’s lovefest is this: Why does an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God need to hear, “Thank you,” from his creations?
The answer offered by Rabbi Eli Stern, an instructor and the outreach director at LINK, the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel, an Orthodox synagogue and kollel (place of learning), is that all of these expressions of gratitude aren’t for G-d’s sake.
“Obviously Hashem doesn’t need it,” Stern said. “We need to develop — for ourselves — the character trait of gratitude,” he said.
Rabbi Dov Heller, a licensed marriage and family therapist, calls blessings of thanks the “technology for helping us develop gratitude.”
And for people who have suffered particularly painful lives, so painful that blessings may not simply ease their pain?
Esther Hess, a developmental pediatric psychologist in Los Angeles and the executive director of the Center for the Developing Mind, explains that prayer can help people feel “they are not alone.” She’s seen this firsthand in counseling parents of children who have developmental disorders.
“I think they have a sense that there is a partnership with whatever difficult endeavor they are doing,” Hess said.
And if God is a partner, as Heller intimated, then He shares in both life’s blessings and life’s curses.
“If you are going to blame God for the bad, also give Him credit for the good,” Heller said. “That can open people up to seeing their pain in a larger context.”
And so, he said, by thanking God for every seemingly little thing — waking up, drinking water — someone who views life in the context of its problems can begin to appreciate its many blessings.