A favorite standup comic of mine starts one of his routines with a great bit: “I’ve been doing comedy for 25 years, and for five years it’s been going great. The first twenty years I struggled; I used to stay in lousy motels, but my life was lousy so I didn’t know better. Now, I stay in beautiful five-star hotels — and I’m miserable…!” It’s a humorous truism that many of us can relate to. The more we gain, the more spoiled we become, and the higher our needs and expectations are. Instead of being grateful for the modern miracles that abound, we complain about smartphones that glitch for a few seconds, or jets that spend extra time on the runway before whisking us through the air. (How dare they make us wait!)
While Sukkot traditionally draws comparisons to Thanksgiving, I find that it is Passover that brings themes of gratitude sharply into focus in a variety of ways. What is the poem Dayenu, after all, if not the paradigmatic Jewish framework for expressing thanks? Clearly, not every stanza of Dayenu “would have been enough” in a literal sense; if we’d only crossed the sea and not made it through the desert to Eretz Yisrael, we wouldn’t be having seders today. Yet with this song the Haggadah insists that we recognize what we have at each interval in life, and express thanks in the moment.
The Sefardic custom of whipping our tablemates with scallions during Dayenu (a custom my family adopted years ago and one that I highly recommend) further emphasizes this theme. According to the Torah (Num. 11:5), the Israelites whined in the desert: “We remember the leeks and onions…that we ate for free in Egypt.” Imagine uttering this complaint after just experiencing the miraculous journey out of bondage! As a student of mine quipped, “the onions really are always greener…” Playfully whipping those next to us reminds us not to fall into that comedian’s trap, as the Israelites did, of losing focus on the blessings in our lives.
Moses himself emphasizes this theme in the Passover narrative. One image that appears repeatedly throughout the story of the exodus 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 and turn it to blood.
The rabbis notice this deviation 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; his feelings of gratitude thus impelled him to refrain from striking the water.
We might ask why Moses would care so much about the “feelings” of an inanimate object; would the water really care if Moses struck it? The answer, of course, is that his actions inspire us to consciously cultivate hakarat ha-tov, that is, “recognition of the good” or, more broadly, a proverbial 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 people in our lives who help us in so many ways, large and small.
This attitude applies 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, but the Torah extends this obligation and dictates that we also recite a blessing after eating. Perhaps this is because we are likely to show gratitude for food while we’re hungry and eyeing a delicious meal, while equally likely to be complacent once we’ve finished and are moving on. The Haggadah surely recognizes this by placing Hallel, the psalms of praise, directly after Birkat Hamazon, further prompting us to reflect upon all we’ve been given and express the proper thanks before proceeding to the next step.
Over the years I have often thought about this in the midst of quieting down a room full of young people (not always an easy task!), whether at camp, school, or a shul Shabbat dinner, in order to recite Birkat Hamazon. It can be tempting in such a context to dismiss this post-meal ritual as superfluous, or simply not worth the time and effort. But the value of cultivating gratitude in our youth is critical, not only in the religious context, but also for personal growth and well-being. The American Psychological Association, for example, has published research showing that higher gratitude in teens results in lower levels of drug abuse, and is linked to improved self-esteem, higher empathy, and lower aggression. Similarly, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America links gratitude in adolescents to decreased risk following traumatic experiences, as well as stronger bonds with family and friends. Significantly, the Torah’s model for living a life of meaning and fulfillment is borne out by modern scientific studies.
As we dispose of our physical and spiritual chametz and enter the spring season, the themes of Pesach provide a powerful reminder to focus not on what we lack but rather on the blessings that we already have (even if we end up in a mediocre hotel over vacation). Dayenu!