What Does it Mean to be Grateful?

What makes you feel grateful? When do you truly experience gratitude, when do you have to remind yourself to be grateful, and when do you force yourself to feel grateful or express thanks for something you have received? These texts represent a Jewish journey towards understanding the different forces and feelings that cause us to offer thanks.

Text #1: More Than You Deserve?

This story comes from the book of Genesis. Rachel, Jacob's beloved wife, is barren. Leah, Jacob's other wife, is granted four sons as a kind of consolation prize. Here's what the Torah tells us about the birth of her fourth child.

(לה) וַתַּ֨הַר ע֜וֹד וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֗ן וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַפַּ֙עַם֙ אוֹדֶ֣ה אֶת־יקוק עַל־כֵּ֛ן קָרְאָ֥ה שְׁמ֖וֹ יְהוּדָ֑ה וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֖ד מִלֶּֽדֶת׃
(35) She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This time I will praise the LORD.” Therefore she named him Judah. Then she stopped bearing.

In this Midrash, or rabbinic explanation, the rabbis ask why Leah felt especially thankful after the birth of her fourth child:

לָמָּה לֹא אָמְרָה בִרְאוּבֵן וְשִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי וּבְכֻלָּם הוֹדָיָה אֶלָּא בִיהוּדָה. מָשָׁל לְכֹהֵן שֶׁיָּצָא לַגֹּרֶן לִטֹּל תְּרוּמָה וּמַעֲשֵׂר, וּבָא בַעַל הַגֹּרֶן נָתָן לוֹ תְרוּמָה וְלֹא הֶחֱזִיק לוֹ טוֹבָה, נָתַן לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר וְלֹא הֶחֱזִיק לוֹ טוֹבָה. לְאַחַר שֶׁנָּתַן לוֹ כָּל מַה שֶּׁהָיָה רָאוּי לַכֹּהֵן לִטֹּל, עָמַד בַּעַל הַגֹּרֶן וְהוֹסִיף לוֹ מִדָּה אַחַת שֶׁל חֻלִּין. הֶחֱזִיק לוֹ טוֹבָה וְנִתְפַּלֵּל עָלָיו. אָמְרוּ לוֹ: לָמָּה כְּשֶׁנָּתַן לְךָ בַּעַל הַגֹּרֶן הַתְּרוּמָה וְהַמַּעֲשֵׂר לֹא הֶחֱזַקְתָּ לוֹ טוֹבָה, וְעַכְשָׁו עַל מְעַט מִדָּה אַחַת שֶׁל חֻלִּין הֶחֱזַקְתָּ לוֹ טוֹבָה. אָמַר לָהֶן, הָרִאשׁוֹנוֹת הַתְּרוּמָה וְהַמַּעֲשֵׂר, שֶׁלִּי הֵן וְשֶׁלִּי לָקַחְתִּי. אֲבָל אוֹתָהּ הַמִּדָּה שֶׁהוֹסִיף לִי, מִשֶּׁלּוֹ, לְפִיכָךְ אֲנִי מַחֲזִיק לוֹ טוֹבָה. וְכָךְ אָמְרָה לֵאָה, שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר שְׁבָטִים עֲתִידִין לַעֲמֹד מִיַּעֲקֹב, וַהֲרֵי אָנוּ אַרְבַּע נָשִׁים, אָנוּ רְאוּיוֹת לֵילֵד שְׁלֹשָה לְכָל אַחַת וְאֶחָת. שְׁלֹשָׁה שֶׁיָּלַדְתִּי כְבָר, חֶלְקִי הֵן. עַכְשָׁו כְּשֶׁהוֹסִיף לִי בֵּן רְבִיעִי עַל חֶלְקִי, בְּוַדַּאי הַפַּעַם אוֹדֶה אֶת יקוק.

Why did she not say I will praise the Lord after the births of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and all the others, but only after the birth of Judah? This may be compared to a priest who goes to a man’s barn to collect the tithe and the priestly portion. When the owner of the barn hands the priest the priestly portion, he does not thank him, and when he gives him the tithe, he still does not thank him. But if, after he gives the priest what is due him, he adds a measure of unconsecrated food, the priest does thank him and recites a prayer in his behalf. A bystander asked the priest: “Why is it that when he gave you the tithe and the priestly portion, you did not thank him, but when he added only a single measure of unconsecrated food, you thanked him?” The priest replied: “The tithe and the priestly offering belong to me, and I merely accepted that which belonged to me, but the measure of unconsecrated food he added belonged to him, and so I thanked him for it.” Similarly Leah said: “Twelve tribes are to descend from Jacob, and since he has four wives, each of us is entitled to bear three sons. I have already given birth to three sons, my rightful share, but now a fourth son has been granted to me; surely it is fitting that I praise the Lord this time.”

According to the Midrash, why is Leah thankful after the birth of her fourth son?

Can you think of a similar situation in which you felt grateful? Does this kind of thanksgiving resonate with you? Why or why not?

Text #2: A Narrow Escape

The quote below is from a part of the Talmud that describes what prayers to say in different situations. Here's what they have to say about prayers of thanks:

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב:

ארבעה צריכין להודות: יורדי הים הולכי מדברות ומי שהיה חולה ונתרפא ומי שהיה חבוש בבית האסורים ויצא ...

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav:

Four people need to offer thanksgiving: Those who travel across the sea, who cross the wilderness, who were sick and recovered, and were imprisoned and released...

Why do you think these four categories of people are supposed to offer thanks?

Can you think of a similar situation in which you felt grateful? Does this kind of thanksgiving resonate with you? Why or why not?

Text #3: Everyday Gratitude

Daily prayers include this section, within the Amidah prayer, which focuses on feelings of gratitude:

מודִים אֲנַחְנוּ לָךְ... נודֶה לְּךָ וּנְסַפֵּר תְּהִלָּתֶךָ עַל חַיֵּינוּ הַמְּסוּרִים בְּיָדֶךָ.. וְעַל נִסֶּיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל יום עִמָּנוּ. וְעַל נִפְלְאותֶיךָ וְטובותֶיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל עֵת. עֶרֶב וָבקֶר וְצָהֳרָיִם...

We gratefully thank You...We thank You and recount Your praise for our lives...Your miracles are with us every day and Your wonders and goodness are with us at all times: evening, morning and noon...

According to this prayer, what sparks feelings of gratitude for the person reciting it?

Can you think of a similar situation in which you felt grateful? Does this kind of thanksgiving resonate with you? Why or why not?

There are many Midrashim, or rabbinic explanations, that focus on what life will be like in a completely redeemed world. Here's one that tells us we will never be done saying thank you:

רַבִּי פִּנְחָס וְרַבִּי לֵוִי וְרַבִּי יוֹחָנָן בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי מְנַחֵם דְּגַלְיָא, לֶעָתִיד לָבוֹא כָּל הַקָּרְבָּנוֹת בְּטֵלִין וְקָרְבַּן תּוֹדָה אֵינוֹ בָּטֵל, כָּל הַתְּפִלּוֹת בְּטֵלוֹת, הַהוֹדָאָה אֵינָהּ בְּטֵלָה

Rabbi Pinchas, Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Yochanan [said] in the name of Rabbi Menachem from Gallia: In the time to come, all sacrifices will be annulled - but the sacrifice of thanksgiving will not be annulled. All prayers will be annulled, but the prayer of gratitude will not be annulled.

In what situations do you think it is most important to feel or express gratitude? Why?

Is it somehow “wrong” not to feel or express thanks for positive developments or good things in your life? Does it make a person less deserving of such things?

To whom do you most often feel thankful? Is it friends, family members, colleagues, God...)?

Do you think that it makes a difference who gets your gratitude, or is it enough just to feel grateful?