The Blessings of Being Simply Ungrateful

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, November 25, 2022 / 1 Kislev 5783

Summary: Gratitude is a powerful way to view our lives. Sometimes, we can discover an ever-greater sense of gratitude by focusing on what we don’t like or want.

Reading Time: Three minutes

Peshita. Peshita is this fabulous Talmudic shorthand that instructs us to look past the obvious. Literally, it means “simple,” and its implications are that a given explanation is so obvious and clear that it would be unnecessary to even mention it. Instead, when the Talmud says peshita about some concept, it is actually asking us to seek the novel insight that isn’t obvious. What can we learn by looking past our first assumptions?

During this period of Thanksgiving, there’s an opportunity to ask a peshita about gratitude. Every religion I have studied spends a great deal of effort teaching us about gratitude because our brains are better tuned to find what is wrong. Self-help books continually emphasize the need to inculcate gratitude, and rightly so. We know the power that gratitude has to make us feel better about our lives, and to appreciate all we have, rather than focusing on what we think we should have. By now, most of us understand that people who practice gratitude tend to be healthier and happier. We also recognize that expressing gratitude to those who help us strengthens social bonds. It’s also much more enjoyable to spend time around grateful people than those who are struggling with bitterness.

Those are all very deep teachings, but while they may be simple to state, applying the lessons of gratitude to our lives is sometimes not at all easy. Despite that, the exercise of looking for the peshita of Thanksgiving may end up teaching us something that is less obvious about gratitude.

I was reading a friend’s Facebook post when the following thoughts came to mind. An old rabbinical schoolmate, Rabbi Alana Suskin, recently wrote that “I am thankful for hypocrisy-weird, right? But it allows us to live with one another when our inside feelings haven’t yet elevated us to our best intentions or our societal ideals.”

The act of finding the blessing in something that on the surface looks like a bad thing is a profound act. Lots of us view hypocrisy or hypocritical people with distaste, yet Rabbi Suskin was able to uncover an evolutionary process we all need to pass through. We hold a particular value dear yet can’t quite manifest it in our behavior. She seems to be saying that there’s an opportunity in hypocrisy to practice tolerance or forbearance. That is a nice and different insight.

In the Mishnah, we find an injunction l’varekh al ha’ra’ah kmo she’atah m’varekh al hatovah, “We should bless the bad just as we bless the good.” This idea is anything but peshita. I mean, how much do we need to disown our own experience to actually do this? What sort of faith does this require of us? How must we change our view of the world for this to be possible? Additionally, can this be done without becoming fatalistic about what is or relinquishing our ability to change what we can?

I don’t think blessing the bad as we bless the good means we need to fall into despair or adopt a Pollyannish attitude about life or our experiences. If someone is suffering, maybe we can help relieve some of their pain.

This notion of blessing the bad, in its religious origin, is most definitely a statement of trust in God. For some people, that trust comes hard, especially if they are struggling against the God concept. Yet another friend highlighted for me one additional aspect of blessing the bad. She stated, “Thanksgiving forces me to reflect on all the things I don’t have that I wish was thankful for. I’m funny.” Blessing the bad, in addition to enhancing our trust in life itself, can highlight what we should be moving towards, what we should be working to create.

It is good to be grateful. Peshita. Finding a way to feel gratitude for what we don’t like or need is often the way to discover a deeper sense of thankfulness.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

    1. What event in your life seemed terrible as it occurred yet turned into a great blessing?
    2. When do you find it easier to be grateful? Is there any pattern to what allows this to happen?
    3. Can you take those patterns and apply them to moments when it is normally harder for you to be grateful?

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