2016-01-06 / Religion Column

Teaching us to cultivate an attitude of gratitude

Kellman Brown Academy

Parshiot Va’era/Bo Ex. 6:2-13:16

“Dai-dayenu…” We are only a few weeks removed from celebrating Chanukah, yet the content of this week’s parasha put me in the Passover spirit early. Indeed, the Torah portions of Va’era and Bo recount the story of the 10 plagues, which ultimately brings an end to the experience of Egyptian slavery and culminates in the exodus.

One image that appears repeatedly throughout these passages is that of Moses raising his staff to act as God’s conduit for bringing the plagues. It is noteworthy, therefore, that the plague of blood is actually not brought by Moses himself; rather, it is Aaron who raises the staff to strike the Nile, thereby turning it to blood.

The Rabbis notice this variance and ask the obvious question—why does Moses delegate this task instead of doing the job himself? Rashi, the great French commentator, explains that Moses did not want to strike the Nile because he was protected by the river as a child; to escape Pharaoh’s murderous decree, his family sent him in a basket along the water where he was eventually saved. Moses’ feelings of gratitude thus impelled him to refrain from striking the water.

One might ask why Moses would care so much about the “feelings” of an inanimate object; after all, would the water really care if Moses struck it? The lesson we can take from his actions is to consciously cultivate “hakarat ha-tov,” that is, “recognition of the good” or, more broadly, an attitude of gratitude toward others. If Moses showed such consideration toward the water, then all the more so are we obligated to give thanks to the real individuals who help us in so many ways.

This attitude extends to that which is greater than ourselves. The religious imperative to demonstrate gratitude finds its expression in our recitation of b’rachot (blessings). Reciting a blessing before eating is common to many traditions, including Judaism; but the Torah also dictates that a blessing be recited after the meal. Perhaps this is because we are likely to be complacent after we’ve finished; the commandment thus pushes us to reflect upon what we have and express our thanks.

I am often reminded of this in the midst of quieting down a cafeteria full of students in order to recite Birkat Hamazon (not always an easy task!). It may be tempting to dismiss this post-lunchtime ritual as superfluous, or just not worth the time and effort. But the value of cultivating gratitude in our students— and ourselves—is critical, not only in the religious context, but also for personal growth and well-being. Numerous studies, by the American Psychological Association and others, have shown that higher gratitude in teens led to lower levels of drug abuse and delinquency, and is linked to improved self-esteem, higher empathy and lower aggression. As in so many cases, the Torah here provides a model for living a life of meaning and fulfillment that is borne out by scientific means.

Moses’ actions provide a powerful reminder to be mindful about gratitude, and to focus not on what we lack but rather what we already have. Or, as we say on Passover, “Dayenu.” .

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