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To Be a Jew Is To Give Thanks -- By Definition

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A few years ago, an e-mail was flying around entitled "I am thankful." In part, it went like this:

I am thankful for the mess to clean after a party, because it means that I have been surrounded by friends.

I am thankful for the clothes that fit a little too snug, because it means I have enough to eat.

I am thankful for a lawn that needs mowing, windows that need cleaning, and gutters that need fixing, because it means I have a home.

I am thankful for the parking spot I find at the far end of the parking lot, because it means I am capable of walking.

I am thankful for my huge heating bill, because it means I am warm.

I am thankful for the piles of laundry and ironing, because it means I have clothes to wear.

And I am thankful for the alarm that goes off in the early morning hour, because it means that I have another day in front of me.

If we really know how to look for them, we can find an awful lot of things to be thankful for -- even those things that may drive us nuts at the time. Perhaps that is why the Talmud (Menahot 43b) commands us to say one hundred blessings, one hundred things to be thankful for, every day. Now, that may sound like a lot of blessings to say, but if the assignment was, "come up with one hundred things to complain about every day," my guess is that we could all do that in about three and a half minutes.

The truth is, how we view the world affects how we act in the world. We certainly have one hundred things that we do every day -- make phone calls, hold meetings, eat meals. The question is, through what lens do we look at those events? And if we try to find one hundred blessings every day, we begin to experience our world as a world that is renewed with blessings each and every day.

This is not to say that every moment in life is easy or that everything we experience is positive. Rather, it comes down to the question of our disposition. Robert Emmons, a professor at UC Davis and author of the book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier poses a simple question -- when you think about a time that you felt grateful, what other feelings do you associate with this state?

As Emmons notes, "Most people think of words like 'peaceful,' 'content,' 'warm,' 'giving,' 'friendly' and 'joyful.' You'd be unlikely to say that gratitude makes you feel 'burdened,' 'stressed,' or 'resentful.'" (25) Clearly, "feeling grateful" correlates with a lot of other positive emotions. But Emmons wondered what exact consequence an "attitude of gratitude" actually had. So he designed an experiment.

He randomly assigned people into three groups, the "blessings" group, the "hassles" group and the control group. Every day for three weeks, the people in the "blessings" group were to write down five things they were thankful for. Not even a hundred -- just five. On contrast, every day for three weeks, the people in the "hassles" group were to write down five things that annoyed them. The control group just listed "things that had happened," without accentuating the positive or the negative.

The "blessings" group came up with things like "the generosity of friends," "that I have learned all that I have learned," "the sunset through the clouds," and "the chance to be alive." The "hassles" group came up with things like "hard to find parking," "messy kitchen no one will clean," "burned my macaroni and cheese," and "doing favor for a friend who didn't appreciate it."

At the beginning and end of the study, each person rated not only their level of happiness and satisfaction in life, but also factors related to their mental and even physical well-being. As you'd expect, after the three weeks, the people in the "blessings" group felt better about their lives in general. The surprise was just how much better.

The group that was told to "find blessings in life" were a full 25 percent happier than the other participants. Not only that, the people who looked for things to be thankful for also reported fewer physical symptoms, exercised more regularly, and had higher states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy. (28-29)

In other words, the people who focused on their blessings weren't just "giving thanks for their health" -- by giving thanks, they actually improved their health! Simply because they were looking for the blessings in their lives, because they were actively trying to find things to be grateful for, they ended up creating their own blessings. And what was even more striking was those who felt like they were blessed were significantly more likely to have helped someone else with a personal problem or offered emotional support. So the blessings they found in their own lives they were then transformed and used to help others.

One hundred blessings every day, Judaism says. Each day when we wake up, we say the nisim b'chol yom, the blessings of the every day. "Thank You, God, for restoring my soul to me. Thank You for giving me another day of life. Thank You for eyes to see, for legs to walk, for clothes to wear." Judaism is very much about seeing the holiness in this world in order to bring more holiness into this world.

And in fact, to be a Jew is to give thanks -- by definition. The Torah tells us of how Leah gave birth to several sons, and when the fourth one was born, she said, "This time, I will give thanks to Adonai," (odeh et Adonai). The root letters of odeh, "I will give thanks," form the basis of the name that Leah chose for son: Yehudah.  From Yehudah, we get the name "Judah." And from "Judah" we get the word "Judaism."

So in the end, our greatest Jewish responsibility is to give thanks, because when we give thanks, we recognize the holy potential of our world and bring more of it into people's lives. And with that potential, when we look -- when we really look -- for 100 blessings every day, we can then create even more of those blessings, for ourselves and for our world.

On this Thanksgiving, then, may we have eyes that are open to the blessings that are always with us, and may we always remember just how much can happen from the simple power of giving thanks.