We see what we choose to see. No set of data forces any rational thinker to accept that one theory or explanation is incontrovertibly true and all others are incontrovertibly false. This explains how good and intelligent and wise people can consistently arrive at different conclusions, even though we have access to the very same data. Whether we are talking of science or of politics, there is no objective inevitability to any of our arguments.
Instead, we are left with the things that we accept as true. Most people take our assumptions and presuppositions for granted, but some people (probably a very few), can and do freely choose to see things a certain way. And here we arrive at the nub of the matter, because of all the things that we can choose to accept or deny, gratitude is both the most optional, and also the single most important for our state of mind, the state of our families and our society.
Indeed, gratitude is probably even more important, at least in terms of concrete results, than whether or not someone believes in G-d. After all, there are good and bad believers, just as there are good and bad atheists. But people who consistently choose to be grateful and appreciative of all that they are and all that they have, are invariably better people for it.
Still: gratitude remains nothing more or less than a choice, a state of mind. Even more than this, feeling grateful is something that we can induce entirely within our own thoughts; it is artificial. In other words: whether we are grateful or not is a choice that we make; it is proof that free will exists.
We see what we choose to see. When Abram fought the battle of the four kings, the King of Sodom attributed the victory to Abram, while another king, Malchizedek, credited G-d with the victory. There is no way to empirically prove whether it was Abram or G-d who deserved the credit – indeed, the Torah itself merely says that Avram was victorious. In other words, the Torah is telling us something that philosophers of science have long known: For any given body of data, there are always at least two equally plausible explanations.
I choose to see G-d’s hand in every aspect of my life. Jews have a phrase for seeing G-d’s involvement in the fortuitous, hashgacha pratis, which loosely translates as “divine providence” or “serendipity.”
I choose to see all data through the prism of what G-d wants from me. When a stray thought comes to my while I pray, I consider it as “the still, small voice,” and I give it serious consideration. When I find, to my surprise, that I have a little extra time, I see it as an opportunity to write my post on Gratitude. Whether it is sunny or it rains, whether I feel well or poorly, I choose to be grateful to G-d for the opportunity to learn and to grow, and to accomplish.
None of this denies the “facts” of the physical world, of statistical chance or meteorological patterns. But, just like the cargo culter, or a global warming theorist, or a committed atheist, I filter all the data I receive through my prism of understanding. The difference between me and those aforementioned groups, however, is that I know that I am choosing to do so. I don’t lie to myself and others, and claim that all data points to my explanation and worldview being correct after all. Instead, I fully embrace the fact that, given the same data, an atheist and I will reach different conclusions, and do so without any ill will. This is the way of the world, and it validates my core thesis: G-d gave us free will, and our choices matter.
Why, if I could choose another path, do I choose this one? In part, because my life is much more productive when I choose to be grateful for all that I have, for all that I and my loved ones have accomplished and achieved. I waste no energy stressing out about the things I cannot change; I do my part, with all my body and soul, and I am enormously grateful to know that G-d will take care of the rest. He always has, and I pray that He always will.
I also choose to be grateful because it makes the world so much more wonderful. Nothing blesses a marriage like a husband and wife who, on an ongoing basis, express their gratitude for all that the other person does. Nothing makes a child feel more love than a parent who is grateful for their contributions to the family and all that it needs. Gratitude is a recursive loving loop, feeding back on itself. But in order to “work”, gratitude must be personal.
The centerpiece of Jewish prayer is a silent prayer (amidah, or shemoneh esreh). In it, we praise G-d, and we pray for numerous good results. After each person has prayed silently, the prayer is repeated out loud by the leader, in every particular: except one. The section on gratitude is said by each person, on their own. It stands out. And the reason, our tradition tells us, is a simple and profound one: we can delegate our prayers. We can delegate our praise of G-d, and our entreaties to Him. But the one thing we cannot ask another to do for us is to say, “thank you.” That is something each person must do for themselves. (here and here is my choir singing the two versions together – the choir with the personal, and the cantor with the communal. See the note at the bottom for the comparative texts.)
After the Flood, Noah offers sacrifices to G-d (Gen. 8:20). In return, there are 17 verses (17 is the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “good”) of blessings from G-d. Why? Because Noah had done something incredible: he showed his appreciation. More than this: he survived the destruction of the world, and he chose to say “thank you”! When we take the time and make the effort to be grateful even for things that are, on their face, simply awful, our blessings multiply. Gratitude is the option that is always available to us, even in the face of despair.
Holocaust survivors were among the most dynamic people mankind has ever seen (examples). They, too, saw their world destroyed. They lost their friends, and their loved ones, their towns and communities – their entire world was gone. And still: An amazing number of them picked themselves up, and got to work. They came up from the camps and dedicated themselves to growing and building with a frenetic energy that mankind has rarely seen.
Gratitude is not meant to be passive appreciation: the Torah makes it clear that Good Works, not mere belief, are what G-d craves. The best example of this is Abraham, widely credited in the history books as being the “founder of monotheism.” But the Torah does not tell us how or why Abraham discovered G-d. Nor does it discuss his internal or external philosophical arguments or even his beliefs. Instead, the Torah tells us what Abraham did with himself. G-d’s purpose for Abraham is “..so that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right….” (Gen: 18:19) Abraham was valued by G-d because of his actions, not because of his thoughts.
Which is why gratitude forms the backbone of my faith, my marriage, my family, my business, and my life. I thank G-d with every thinking breath. I see all data through this prism: if something that looks bad happens, I choose to see it, as hard as it can be, as an opportunity for something better to happen as a result, or as a spur for me to get smarter or see things differently. Rebuilding the world requires an appreciation for being alive, gratitude for the opportunity to work and act and live.
Even in politics: others see a disaster, I see an opportunity – nay a challenge – to aspire to creating a better world. Every single piece of data can be seen through this prism: even terrible news can be seen a way for me to improve myself and everything I can touch.
So: there are a myriad of ways in which a win by either candidate can be parlayed into something that works out for the best, for at least those Americans who care about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I am resolved to be grateful for the things I cannot change, so that I can be proactive about changing everything that I can.
I make this choice: Every day I will wake up, give thanks to G-d and my loved ones, and get to work. Praise the Lord, and Pass the Ammunition.
Noach was not the first to be grateful (Cain and Abel also brought “presents” (mincha), but Noach “raised up offerings” (ya’al olot) that were received as “pleasing spirit’) to G-d. The nature, content, and consequences of the offerings were qualitatively distinct, and it was Noach’s offerings that formed the foundation of tabernacle and temple offerings detailed elsewhere in the Torah. The mincha of Cain and Abel, by contrast, are the same word used to describe a present or a bribe – such as Jacob’s presents to Esau and bribes to the Egyptian overseer. So a mincha is for appeasement, while an oloh is a proactive show of appreciation. By combining physical matter with energy (fire), Noah showed an understanding of man’s core task on this earth: elevation of the physical world, the combination of life and spiritual energy as embodied by the burning bush. The Torah teaches us that this is holiness.
Here is Jonathan Sacks’ translation of the twinned words of gratitude as referenced above. Note the text, in the personal version: “to do your will and serve you.”