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Wisdom For Your Thanksgiving Table – OpEd

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Most religions have always stressed the virtue of daily expressions of gratitude to God. The Qur’an states that Prophet Sulaiman said: “. . . ‘This is by the Grace of my Lord to test me whether I am grateful or ungrateful! And whoever is grateful, truly, his gratitude is (good) for his own self, and whoever is ungrateful, (it is his own loss). Certainly! My Lord is Rich, Bountiful.'” (27:40)

And as Prophet David, Prophet Solomon’s father said in his Zabur (103:1-4) “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.”

Now there is scientific evidence that this religious virtue may be crucial to helping people reduce the impact of climate change on human societies.

From personal decisions about what and how much to eat or drink to community wide decisions about climate change; the problem has always been that human minds tend to devalue future rewards compared to immediate rewards — a phenomenon that usually leads to favoring immediate gratification over long-term wellbeing. 

As a consequence, patience and self discipline have long been recognized by all the major religions to be virtues. Indeed, the inability to resist temptation and impulse underlies a host of problems ranging from credit card debt to unhealthy drinking, eating and drug addiction.

The prevailing view for reducing short term thinking and impatience has emphasized the use of willpower. Emotions should be tamped down or eliminated, in order to avoid impulsive desires for immediate gain. But a study in the journal Psychological Science challenged the conventional view by demonstrating that feelings of gratitude clearly reduce financial impatience.

Impatience was assessed using a set of decisions pitting desire for instant gratification against waiting for larger, future rewards. For example, participants chose between receiving $54 now or $80 in 30 days. To increase the stakes, participants actually had the chance to obtain one of the financial rewards they selected. But before making these decisions, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups and asked to write about an event from their past that made them feel (a) grateful, (b) happy, or (c) neutral.

Although participants feeling neutral and happy showed a strong preference for immediate payouts, those feeling grateful showed more patience. 

For example, just writing about an event that made them feel grateful led those people to require $63 immediately to forgo receiving $85 in three months, whereas neutral and happy people required only $55 to forgo the future gain. 

What’s more, the degree of patience exhibited was directly related to the amount of gratitude any individual felt. 

Positive feelings alone were not enough to enhance patience, as happy participants were just as impatient as those in the neutral condition. But the scientists discovered that the influence of gratitude, possibly due to its sense of a need to “pay back” in the future, was quite effective. 

The religious way of saying this is that all humans owe God for all the blessings we have received and thus must always behave in unselfish ways. This will also benefit ourselves in the long run; and ingrates always hurt themselves in the long run.  As Allah says: “And (remember) when your Lord proclaimed: ‘If you give thanks (by words and good deeds), I will give you more; but if you are ingrates, verily, My punishment is indeed severe'”  (14:7)

This scientific evidence that the emotion of gratitude fosters self-control opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills from impulse buying to obesity and smoking, said one of the researchers, who has now learned something that religions have been teaching for thousands of years.

One way the Jewish tradition has taught the value of gratitude to Jews is to teach us the importance of saying blessings for the many things we experience, both in our ordinary daily and weekly life, and at occasional extraordinary times. 

It is a Mitsvah (Jewish religious duty) to say blessings at every meal over food and drink. Every morning when we awake it is a Mitsvah to say several blessings because various parts of our mind and body still work. During morning and evening prayers 18 blessings are said, and there are blessings for the weekly celebration of the Sabbath. 

There are also blessings to say for special occasions, for our sages urged us to thank God for as many blessings as we can, since the more blessings you can say, the more blessed you are. Indeed, Jewish tradition maintains that everyone who is able to say 100 blessings a day is truly blessed. 

Among the special occasion blessings there is a blessing for seeing a non-Jewish sage and another one for seeing a Jewish sage. There is a blessing for hearing good news and another one for hearing bad news in accordance with Rabbi Huna’s view that we need both joy and suffering to experience a holy life. Here are a few examples of blessings for special occasions:

On beholding fragrant trees:
Praised be Adonai our God, Ruler of space and time, creator of fragrant trees.

On seeing trees in blossom:
Praised be Adonai our God, Ruler of space and time, whose world lacks nothing we need, who has fashioned goodly creatures and lovely trees that enchant the heart.

On seeing an unusual looking person:
Praised be Adonai our God, Ruler of space and time, who makes every person unique.

On the Divine value of pluralism and human variety when seeing a large number of people:
Praised be Adonai our God, Ruler of space and time, the Sage of esoterica, for just as no person’s opinion is like that of another, so their faces are different from one another.

On seeing evidence of charitable efforts:
Praised be Adonai our God, ruler of space and time, who clothes the naked.  

On seeing people who overcome adversity:
Praised be Adonai our God, ruler of space and time, who gives strength to the weary.

David’s Psalms-Zabur are also a good fountain of gratefulness:

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” Ps. 103:1-5

“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” Ps. 107:1

“The Lord is my strength and my shield; My heart trusts in Him, and I am helped; Therefore my heart exults, And with my song I shall thank Him.” Ps. 28:7

“I will praise the name of God with song, and shall magnify Him with thanksgiving.” Ps. 69:30

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever; to him who alone does great wonders, for his steadfast love endures forever; to him who by understanding made the heavens, for his steadfast love endures forever; …” Ps. 136:1-5

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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