An acknowledgement of what the Lord has meant to us in the past and what He still means to us today, as well as an avowal of what our relationship to Him has been and should be.
We have a tradition which teaches that when God created the world the trees and vegetation were created on the third day but remained below the surface of the earth. The tradition goes on to state that the reason for this was that God would not send any precipitation until there was a person on this earth who would appreciate this gift and be grateful for it. Now, admittedly, this is only a tradition, but it illustrates an important idea that relates to gratitude. The idea is that without vegetation, life could not exist – and that without a human being to appreciate it, be grateful for it, and to express his thanks, there could be no precipitation and no vegetation. In other words, life is sustained by gratitude.
In the Hebrew, the word for gratitude is hakaras hatov, which literally means ‘recognizing the good.’ Gratitude, or recognizing the good and being grateful for it, is at the root of our relationship with God. Life depends upon it. God knew that if human beings were not made aware that they needed His goodness, that they should recognize it and be grateful for it, they could never have a meaningful relationship with Him. Grasping the true meaning of gratitude and its magnitude is life transforming. We must understand that when a relationship, any relationship, lacks gratitude, that relationship is incapable of real growth. Gratitude builds relationships. Relationships are about recognizing and returning good.
Once we recognize the good that someone else has exercised towards us, we often feel compelled to return the favor, as it were. Which helps brings meaning and fulfillment to society at large. However, it is also critical to remember that we cannot properly respond to goodness while remaining ignorant of the Source of the kindness that has been bestowed upon us. Our gratitude ultimately points to the Provider of all that is good, the Master of the universe. And gratitude serves to reinforce our faith in Him.
By contrast, it should come as no surprise that one of the greatest watermarks of the atheist is ingratitude. After all, most atheists believe that the world just “happened” and the fundamental belief of the atheist stems from his lack of any relationship with Creator, blessed be He. Living a life imbued with gratitude, on the other hand, makes it impossible to believe that things just “happen.” Should it be any wonder that we read in the Scriptures concerning those who suppress the truth and refuse to acknowledge Him:
” … what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:19-21)
Jewish tradition equates ingratitude with heresy:
Why does the Torah exact such retribution from ingrates? Because ingratitude is a semblance of the denial of God. And one who denies belief in God is, in essence, an ingrate. A person who denies the good that his friend has done for him will tomorrow deny the good that God his Creator has done.
The Hebrew sense of the most basic meaning of ingratitude is to cover, as in covering a pot. An ingrate seeks to cover, to deny the fact that good has been done for him, to minimize another person’s kindness towards him. He rationalizes, “Why should I feel grateful to him? He didn’t really do that much for me. I owe him nothing in return.” One who is ungrateful towards God denies all of the good that God does for him. His ingratitude implies that all the good that happens in his life is not granted him by God. This is a form of heresy.
Abraham, in a generation of idol worshipers, came to recognize the one true God. He did this by contemplating the world, with its infinite blessings, its symphony of creations working together in perfect harmony, and asking himself: “Can it be that this palace has no director?” The Director gazed upon him and said, “I am the Master of the palace.” (Yalkut Shimoni, Parashas Lech Lecha) Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler comments, that in truth there are no real heretics. Someone who denies belief in a Creator does so because he refuses to acknowledge God’s goodness. If he did acknowledge His goodness he would feel obligated to obey His Word – and the “heretics” of this world are not willing to do that.
Part of the essence of gratitude is that it recognizes that we are not the sole authors of all that is good in our lives. The egoist, says Andre Comte-Sponville, “is ungrateful because he doesn’t like to acknowledge his debt to others and gratitude is this acknowledgement.” La Rochefoucald put it more bluntly: “Pride refuses to owe, self-love to pay.” Comte-Sponville adds: “Those who are incapable of gratitude live in vain; they can never be satisfied, fulfilled or happy: they do not live, they get ready to live, as Seneca puts it.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief Rabbi of England, comments that gratitude has an inner connection with humility:
[Gratitude] recognizes that what we are and what we have is due to others, and above all to God. Though you don’t have to be religious to be grateful, there is something about belief in God as Creator of the universe . . . and author of the laws of life that directs and facilitates our gratitude. It is hard to feel grateful to a universe that came into existence for no reason and is blind to us and our fate. It is precisely our faith in a personal God that gives force and focus to our gratitude. Thanksgiving is as important to societies as it is to individuals. It protects us from resentments and the arrogance of power. It reminds us of how dependent we are on others and on a Force greater than ourselves.
It is no coincidence that the United States, founded by Puritans – Calvinists steeped in the Hebrew Bible – should have a day known as Thanksgiving, recognizing the presence of God in American history. On October 3rd, 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving proclamation, thanking God that though the nation was at war with itself, there were still blessings for which both sides could express gratitude.
Gratitude is the basis for any relationship – with oneself, with parents, husbands, wives, children. Gratitude is what enables and empowers us to be true servants of God and of one another and service is our primary purpose in life. Even the Son of Man declared that He came not to be served but to serve and that we would do well to imitate His example of gratitude and service. You cannot have one without the other. And although I don’t claim to speak for anyone else, the words I long to hear from the lips of my Master at the end of my sojourn here on earth are simply “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Our Sages comment that when one day in the new future that is to come, all things on earth will be in such an ideal state that there will be no more cause for prayers and offerings; even then, prayers of gratitude and offerings of thanksgiving will never cease and continue to be offered. For it would be only under such conditions that these acts will attain their true significance. How great is gratitude, the noblest of all human traits and destined to endure throughout eternity.
Rabbi S.R. Hirsch commenting on Psalm 92 writes:
May we be made aware of the vanity of all the years of our life, of the inadequacy of all that which lies beyond us and which we think we can attain as the years go by. That all men are as grass and their glory as the flower of the field that fades away. That all the joy and happiness of which any of us is capable of attaining in this world dwells in the certainty that we have lived all our days, hours, and minutes on earth in gratitude and loyalty to God, and that we have faithfully discharged our duty throughout time . . . so that, whenever God sees fit to call us away, we will boldly heed the summons, content in the thought that we have realized the goal for which we were created. May He, therefore, teach us how to number our days aright and greet each day with a heart full of gratitude for, each day is one more day in His service.
What an awesome privilege to remain in His employ, unworthy servants such as we are. Happy Thanksgiving.