Gratitude as a dying art

Gratitude as a dying art

America may be the most religious country in the Western world, but it has an ugly tendency to rip the spiritual guts out of its religious festivals and stuff them with shallow consumerism instead. I’m not sure that Jesus envisioned the celebration of his birth to include a bearded fat guy sliding down a chimney to deliver a flat screen TV.

Now we have the specter of the Black Friday super-sales spilling over into Thanksgiving Day itself, threatening to rob us of anything solemn left in the holiday. The arms race of commercial retailers has resulted in stores like Walmart, Target, and Macy’s opening up Thursday evening, when families are just sitting down for their turkey dinner. Not to be outdone, K-Mart plans to open as early as 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, staying open nonstop through Friday, for a grand total of 41 hours straight.

A simple appreciation of their blessings is what motivated the first Thanksgiving hosted by America’s earliest European settlers when they commemorated the first harvest in the New World. Joining as allies with native Americans who taught them how to catch food and grow corn, they paid homage to God for keeping them from starvation. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

But Turkey Day has become “smartphone day.” We give Thee thanks, Oh Samsung, for lowering the price of a Galaxy S4. Thousands of employees will be forced to miss quality family time to restock shelves and ring up crazed shoppers at the registers.

But the biggest casualty is the simple emotion of gratitude.

What made the biggest impression on our students at the University of Oxford, hundreds of whom would congregate every Friday night to have Shabbat dinner with us, was our weekly “l’chayim” tradition. Each week I would ask students to publicly offer a toast of gratitude for something good in their lives. As Oxford is an international community, I asked the students to say the l’chayim in their native tongue. It added sparkle and color to a beautiful tradition that I continue every Friday night with the many guests who frequently join us at our home in Englewood.

This did not mean, however, that gratitude was instilled into our students’ character from one toast alone. It takes more than a glass of wine to acknowledge the kindnesses that others practice with us.

Why is gratitude the mother of all virtues? Why does it strike to the very heart of our humanity? Because at its core gratitude involves the human ability to be touched by the kindness of another. If people can selflessly extend themselves to you – if a parent can dress you warmly during winter, if a boss can give you a paycheck through a recession, if a rabbi can provide a home away from home at college – and it leaves no mark, then can you be said to have a heart of flesh?

If I have learned one thing about human nature it is that humans seek recognition. No, I’m not talking about being voted People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (a distinction of which I was yet again robbed this year), winning a Grammy, or being voted “most likely to succeed” in some shallow high school yearbook. I’m talking about parents feeling appreciated for waking up early to feed their families, a wife having her husband notice that she made herself pretty for him, a child wanting a parent to notice the colorful pictures they made at school. To be unrecognized is to be invisible. And to be invisible is to be insignificant.

Every human being is born with the inner conviction, the unassailable knowledge, that they are special. That there is none quite like them. Much of life is the simple pursuit of having that conviction validated.

When you show gratitude toward others you are acknowledging their uniqueness. But when you take them for granted, or worse, when you use and discard them, you make them feel ordinary, like they don’t matter, which results in bitterness and anger.

Hillel famously said that the essence of the Torah is “that which you hate do not do unto others.” And the one thing we most hate is ingratitude.

God commanded Moses to show gratitude even to the waters of the Nile and the dust of Egypt – inanimate objects – that had saved his life. And in the ten most important rules of morality ever given to mankind, appreciating our parents made the list.

In the Jewish religion there is no greater insult than to be considered a “kofuy tov,” an ingrate.

On Black Friday, go ahead and knock yourself out. Shop till you drop. But Thankful Thursday, that beautiful day we call Thanksgiving, should not be corrupted by an insatiable consumerism that is all about taking and not giving.