Ki Tavo — Expressing Gratitude

The most popular course at Harvard University these last few years has been a course called “Positive Psychology.” It is taught by Israeli professor Tal Ben Shahar. The course focuses on “how to create a fulfilling and flourishing life” based on the scientific research into human psychology. In the past several years, courses with similar themes have popped up on over one hundred campuses nationwide.Scientific research, on which hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant money is spent, often just confirms what wise parents teach their children for free. In this case, research shows that happiness depends not on the size of ones bank account or the number of homes one has, but on the state of ones mind. But research also shows that people do not know how to achieve happiness. We overestimate the amount of happiness we will achieve when we decide to take a course of action. We may anticipate that the new car we buy or the new kitchen we put into the house will bring us a certain amount of happiness, and we are almost always wrong. It’s the same with decisions to marry, or to have children — people overestimate the amount of happiness that they will achieve as a result of these decisions. In other words, we want to be happy, we just don’t know how to get there. Judaism teaches, moreover, that G-d wants us to be happy. The Torah tells us that we should rejoice in our festivals, and on the holiday of Succoth we are actually commanded to be happy. The Jerusalem Talmud teaches that among the questions that a person will have to answer on his day of Judgment before the heavenly tribunal is, “Did you enjoy my world?” The appropriate enjoyment of life is essential to living.So how can we achieve happiness? We can’t buy our way to happiness. Children and family don’t are no guarantee we will find happiness. Researchers asked students to keep a diary every night for six months, recording the things that had gone well that day. At the end of six months, they took a measure of the students’ happiness. Students who kept the diary fared better on measures of happiness, optimism, and physical health than those who did not keep such a diary. In other words, you can LEARN to be happy by noticing and noting the good things that have happened to you every day, and being thankful for them.Expressing this sense of gratitude for the good that has happened to us is ritualized in our Torah portion for this week. In it, the Israelite farmer is commanded to bring the first fruit of their produce to the Temple, and give thanks to G-d for fulfilling His promise of bringing them into the land. When they bring the first fruits to the Kohen at the Temple, they are to recite a prayer. The prayer recounts the famine that brought our father Jacob and his family down to Egypt, their prosperity there and their subsequent enslavement, misery, and oppression. But, continues the farmer, we cried out, and G-d heard our cries, and brought us out of Egypt, to this land of milk and honey – Now, he concludes, I bring the first fruits of the soil to YOU, G-d, who has given the land to me. All of my bounty would be impossible but for the gifts you gave to me. Then, the text concludes, “You shall rejoice before the Lord your G-d.”Thus, both modern psychology and our ancient traditions point that the way to happiness is to express gratitude for what we have. But we don’t have to wait for the harvest to come in, we don’t have to wait for a holiday or a special occasion to express our thanks. We don’t really need to keep a diary every night to record the good things that have happened to us during the day. Rather, our tradition provides us a way to express our gratitude every day, numerous times. It is called the Bracha – a blessing. Judaism teaches us to say a hundred braches every day. That’s a lot of “thank yous”! Fortunately, many of the things we should be thankful for, which we may take for granted, are expressed in our daily prayers.It is natural to want to recite a blessing if one sees a rainbow, experiences an earthquake, sees a lofty mountain or a shooting star. It is at these times that we are most aware of the wonder of being alive. But what about the mundane and routine moments in life? For these we are far less likely to express gratitude. So Judaism has ritualized blessings for these times, to help us be more aware of them. Our morning prayers in our Siddur include blessings to be said every day for opening our eyes in the morning, for sitting up in bed, for putting our feet on the ground, for getting dressed, for taking our first steps in the morning, for having energy. Most of us take these things for granted. No one who has been seriously ill, or who has cared for someone seriously ill does. Because when you are seriously ill you can’t sit up in bed without help, and you need help to swing your feet out of bed and get up, and you can’t get dressed yourself, and you need support to walk, and you are exhausted by a short trip to the bathroom. As the New Year approaches, may we be aware of everything we have to be grateful for. For this awareness is the path to true happiness. I close with a poem by the Israeli poet, Leah Goldberg, “Teach Me, O G-d, a Blessing.””Teach me O G-d, a blessing, a prayer On the mystery of the withered leafOn ripened fruit, so fairOn the freedom to see, to sense To breathe, to know, to hope, to despair.Teach my lips a blessing, a hymn of praiseAs each morning and nightYou renew my days,Lest my day be as the one beforeLest routine set my ways.Rabbi Marc D. RudolphSeptember 19, 2008