I've been talking about taxes with my daughter. It's not just to complain about putting together receipts and pay stubs. It's to talk about what they mean. They are not just a burden. They are an opportunity to express gratitude.
I am grateful for the opportunity to earn a living. I am grateful for the infrastructure and political system that allows me to earn in freedom. I am grateful for the gifts with which God blessed me so I can earn a living doing what I love.
Even though it may seem odd, tax season is actually a perfect time to teach our children about gratitude. Doing so is critical, because our culture does not reinforce it. Consider an insightful scene from one of the early Simpsons episodes. The entire family is seated around the dinner table. Bart is asked to say grace. He offers the following words: "Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing."
Bart's words capture what so many often feel. We're entitled to what we have. We earned it. Why should we thank anyone for it? A consumerist culture reinforces this message. "Buy this product," we are told, "because you need it. You deserve it."
Like many parents, I think a lot about how to cultivate in my young children a sense of gratitude. How can I convey to them how lucky we are to live in America, to have a roof over heads, to have toys to play with, good schools to attend, an extended and loving family to visit?
Experience and study has taught me the following:
1. Example teaches the most: Gratitude is not only taught by words. It is caught by example. If I take things for granted; if I act entitled; if I look at other people as means to satisfying my needs, rather than ends in themselves; then so will my children. Actions speak louder than words.
2. Pray: Something about prayer changes the way we look at the world. It highlights what we often forget. As Rabbi Sidney Greenberg put it, "Prayers of thanksgiving bring to the foreground what is usually in the background ... They remind us that without the dominance of kindness we would be indifferent to cruelty. Without faithfulness we would be unmoved by betrayal. Around us everywhere, flooding us with light, is the dazzling goodness of creation."
3. Give to others: Experience has taught me that, paradoxically, when we give something away, we benefit, sometimes even more than the recipient of our gift. By responding to the needs of another, we recognize that our needs are not the only ones that matter.
At my synagogue, we have a program where children in need anonymously post what they would like for holiday gifts. Families from the synagogue agree to "adopt" one child and get them their desired gifts. When my family did it, I saw the excitement and joy in my children's faces.
Giving to others helped them appreciate what we give to them. And it helped us realize how important gratitude is. It is the secret sauce of happiness. It can lift our spirits and transform the way we see the world. It's the closest we get to the meaning of life.
An anonymous poet put it eloquently in a verse I am going to give my daughter on April 15: "Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity."
"It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow."
To express gratitude is a gift life gives us. Let us be grateful for it.
Follow Rabbi Evan Moffic on Twitter: www.twitter.com/chicagorabbi