Through a Mussar Lens: Reasons to be Grateful for Everything
Our ancestral rabbis tell the story of a man who was bitten by a wasp and ran to the river to ease the sting in the cool water. When he got to the river, he came upon a child who was drowning and saved him. The child thanked the man, saying, “If not for you, I would have drowned.” The man replied, “If not for the wasp, I would not have been here to save you.”
The Midrash extends this example to explain that when the daughters of Yitro told their father about Moshe saving them from the shepherds, they said, “Father, it was an Egyptian man who saved us.” Moshe explained to them, “It is not me you should thank for saving you but the Egyptian whom I killed. If not for him, I would not be here” (Shemot Rabbah on Shemot / Exodus 2:19).
These simple tales convey the complexity involved in being grateful. They raise the question of where thanks are due. Most obvious to us is the proximate agent—usually the actual person who did us a good turn. But that person does not exist in a vacuum. So many factors stand behind and have a role in the good or generous deed that person did for us. It seems our teachers expect us to look beyond the hand that extends helpfully in our direction to see and appreciate that hand, as well as all that goes into any gift that it sends our way.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement in 19th century Lithuania, found another way in which Jewish tradition encourages us to look deeply into what we experience to appreciate how much we have to be grateful for. He left Lithuania in the 1850s and moved to Paris, where one day he ordered a cup of coffee in an expensive hotel and was taken aback by the amount that he was charged. Rav Yisrael wondered to himself why they would ask so much money for a cup of coffee that would cost only pennies on the street. On reflection, he realized that much more went into the price of the cup of coffee than the inexpensive ingredients themselves. They were charging for the service provided by the cooks and waiters, for the ambience of the hotel, the fine building, the expensive furnishings, the beautiful gardens and all the other trappings that were factored into and included in the price.
This realization helped Rav Yisrael understand why it is that when we are about to drink a simple glass of water, the blessing we are to say is “sh’ha’kol,” in which we bless God for creating “everything.” Since it is only a glass of water, why don’t we have a blessing specific to that substance, as we have specific blessings for other foods? He answered that it takes “everything” to create a glass of drinkable water, and when you think about it, he is surely right.
When you hold a glass of water in your hand, that water itself has to be delivered from somewhere, likely via some form of plumbing that had to be created, installed and maintained. Someone you will likely never meet has done the job of ensuring that the water is pure and drinkable. Someone else had to make the glass, and think as well about how that glass, which began life as a simple mound of sand, got converted into clear, firm glass, and the many steps required to get that glass into your hand.
All of that to be thankful for! And yet that is far from the whole of it, because those are only examples of the human agents who contributed to getting that glass of water to you. Think about the role nature plays in causing evaporation, condensation and precipitation. Every droplet in that glass of water had a prior life in a river, lake or ocean and required air and the warmth of the sun to be drawn up into a cloud, later to fall as rain wherever it is that your water was sourced. The force of gravity will have played a role or two in the process as well.
Add to this the functioning of your own body. How is it that you have bones and muscles in your hand that permit you to grip the glass, and a brain and nervous system that convert the desire to drink into an appropriate and effective hand motion? Think of all the other body parts that need to be properly shaped and in functional condition for you to be able to hold, lift, drink, swallow, digest, and gain the benefit of that life-sustaining water—lips, tongue, epiglottis, throat, stomach, intestines, blood and more.
The deeper you look into it, the more you will observe the undeniable fact that no element in creation exists independent of the complex web of agents that are connected and interrelated with everything else. Sh’ha’kol is surely the right blessing for even a “simple” glass of water because the truth is that it only appears to be simple. When we open our minds to awareness of how many factors go into creating everything that we use on a daily basis that sustains us, gives us pleasure, and helps us to live our lives, we have to recognize the astounding outpouring of gifts large and small flowing our way, moment to moment.
Though we are largely so inured to this reality that it remains almost invisible to our conscious minds, the truth is that immeasurable gifts are flowing into our lives at every moment. There is no way any human being can claim credit for creating or earning those gifts, and the more we perceive this reality accurately, the more we will feel called to fall on our faces in utter gratitude.
These thoughts lead me in two directions, one religious, the other spiritual.
I ask myself, where did all that exists in the universe come from, and how did it get organized into such complex, law-abiding systems? It seems so implausible to me that it is the result of random forces that just happened to fall into place in such elegant and effective ways.
Recently, I was in a place that was rich in bird life. Seeing the brilliant and varied colors of the birds, their different voices, sizes and shapes, and the way each took a different form of food from the environment made me consider how utilitarian and inadequate the theory of evolution is to explain our diverse and beautiful universe. To me, what I see around me points to the role of a Creator in forming and structuring all that is. And I bow in gratitude.
From a spiritual perspective, I see how easily and regularly I ignore the full and vast array of creatures, entities and systems with which I am so thoroughly and undeniably integrated. When I slow down enough and open up enough to realize that my existence and experience are dependent on nuclear fusion continuing to take place on a nearby star (which we call “the sun”) and to an equal extent on this mysterious inner process we call consciousness, and my heart beating and breath flowing and, in truth, ha’kol (everything), it calls into question whether I even exist as a separate entity at all. It seems I cannot claim that distinction, and in awareness of my utter dependency, I experience profound gratitude.
For these reasons, it is essential to make gratitude a central practice in our lives. When we seek out more ways to feel gratitude, and we cultivate an attitude of gratitude, we peel back the curtains to expose a fuller view of the magnitude of the gifts that we are graced to receive. Doing that, we will come to live more closely aligned to truth, and will see more clearly what goes into composing the world and our lives. Hearts filled with gratitude, we will come to know more of God, and in that knowledge, we will be drawn closer to the divine source of our lives.
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