The Torah is an interesting book. I realize it’s probably not surprising to hear a Rabbi say this, but what I mean is that you can read the same passage year after year without noticing much, and then one day you look at the very same words and they hit you like a ton of bricks. I recently had such an experience while reading this week’s Torah portion.
But first some background: I was not doing well when I opened up to this week’s reading. A business opportunity that I had been hoping for had failed to materialize. In retrospect, it wasn’t a big deal, but in the moment it didn’t matter. I was feeling angry and discouraged – that is, until I started reading about our forefather Jacob.
Nothing comes easy for Jacob. He has to flee for his life from a brother who wants to kill him. He’s forced to spend twenty years with a scheming and manipulative uncle who tries to take him for everything he’s got. And then, when he’s finally able to return home with a family and some hard-earned wealth, his powerful and very angry brother is there to greet him at the head of a 400 man army. It’s hard to imagine a more disappointing situation: Just when things finally seem to be looking up for Jacob, it appears as though everything he’s worked for is about to be taken from him.
It’s at this point that Jacob utters some pretty astonishing words:
”God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac; Hashem Who said to me, ‘Return to your land and to your relatives and I will do good with you’ – I have been diminished by all the kindnesses and by all the truth that you have done your servant.” (Bereshit – 32:10-11)
Here’s Jacob, faced with the prospect of losing his entire life’s work, and he’s filled with appreciation. I on the other hand had simply failed to get something I wanted, and all I could feel was resentment. The contrast was striking, and the lesson was clear: In life, there are two choices: You can live in gratitude or you can live in attitude. The only question is: Why do some people face tremendous challenges with a profound sense of gratitude while others, who seem to have everything they could possibly desire, lead lives filled with anxiety and resentment?
I believe our story provides us with two critical keys to feeling gratitude: First, when you take your inventory, make sure you do your math properly: Don’t count your blessings. Start from zero, from the day you were born, and count everything you have. Appreciate that no matter where you are in life, you’re already way ahead of the game. As Jacob’s prayer continues:
“. . . for with my staff I crossed this Jordan and now I have become two camps.”
It’s easy for me to fall into the trap of counting from yesterday when things were going better, or from tomorrow; from where I think I should be. But whenever I stop to take an honest look at my life as a whole, I’m amazed: I came into this world with absolutely nothing and now I have a family, a home, two cars, clothing, and a job. Heck, I even have 400 friends on Facebook! Where did it all come from? I started at zero and yet somehow, by the time I got to Seattle, I had a family of six and a moving truck filled with 12,000 pounds of stuff! If that doesn’t fill me with a sense of wonder then probably nothing will.
But there’s a second, even more important key, and that takes us back to the beginning of Jacob’s prayer: Like Jacob, you have to say “katanti,” and you have to mean it. Katanti, translated loosely as “I have been diminished” comes from the word “katan,” which means small. In other words, what Jacob was really saying was: “I am way too small for what I have.”
It’s not enough to be aware of what you have. You have to realize that it’s a gift. You may have worked hard to get where you are today, but you didn’t get there on your own. We’ve all heard the term “self-made-man,” but let’s face it: Nobody gets anywhere from zero without a ton of help. I, for one, don’t have a clue as to how I got to where I am today. What I do know is that it’s not because I planned it to happen this way. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that I’ve gotten to where I am in spite of what I planned – and all I can say is: thank God for that.
Gratitude or attitude: It has nothing to do with what we have or don’t have. The choice is entirely up to us, and it’s the most important one we’ll ever make. Not only because it enables us to enjoy what we have today, but perhaps even more importantly, because it allows us to take our hands off the steering wheel and trust that we’ll have what we need tomorrow. This doesn’t mean that we won’t make our own effort. Like Jacob, we must do everything in our power to succeed. It’s just that after we’ve done our part, our recognition of just how much we’ve been taken care of allows us to take a step back, enjoy what we we’ve been given, and leave the rest in God’s hand.