A Jewish Lesson in How to Practice Gratitude All Year Long

Rabbi Marc Katz

Two thousand years ago, a rabbi named Ben Zoma outlined the difference between a grateful and ungrateful guest.

As he explains, a grateful guest who comes to dinner will say, “How much trouble did my host take for me! How many kinds of wine did he bring before us! How many kinds of cuts [of meat] did he bring before us...and all the trouble that he took for me!” However, an ungrateful guest will say, “How little trouble did this household take...I ate only a loaf of his bread. I drank only a cup of his wine. He went to all this trouble only to provide for his wife and children” (Tosefta Berachot 6:2).

The difference between these two guests can be summarized by the use of the word “only.” Where the first guest sees the bounty before him, the other sees all the bounty that was not placed on the table. These sets of words – only, just, barely, merely – are perhaps the most destructive words in the English language. They set up barriers, making us unable to acknowledge the good that lays before us. Where a grateful person marvels at the three kinds of wine before him, the ungrateful person wonders why there was no beer. Where one imagines the many hands that made his bread, the other is busy searching for dips.

Gratitude is difficult because it is inextricably linked to humility. In order to be truly grateful, we have to learn to get out of our own way. Many of us walk around the world believing that we are deserving. We expect the best because we assume we have earned it. Then, when someone does not give us what we want, we grow indignant and our anger or disappointment overshadows the beauty of their gift. We wonder why we were “only” given so much when we should have had more.

The problem is that few people will ever meet our expectations. Our proverbial hosts will go out of their way for us, but if we cannot practice humility, we will see only what they do not give us, not what they do.

In a way, ingratitude is a form of idolatry. If God is defined as the greatest of all things and idolatry is replacing God with something of this world, then when we are ungrateful it is because we have made ourselves so big that we let ourselves turn into a God. Rather than knowing our place in the universe, we occupy all of it, crowding out any goodness that we might celebrate.

Before we can adequately practice gratitude, we have to first tap into our own sense of humility. We have to learn to make ourselves smaller so we can get a clear look at our blessings. So, try these steps and you will soon see how quickly you let gratitude in:

  1. Avoid using the world “only.” Replace it with wonder at what is rather than disappointment at what could have been.
  2. Notice how much you are talking. If you find yourself talking more than you are listening, try being quiet for a bit and noticing what you see.
  3. Take another piece of advice from Ben Zoma who taught that when we eat, we should think about what it took Adam, the first human being to make his food, how “he seeded, plowed, reaped, sheaved, threshed, winnowed, separated, ground sifted, kneaded, and baked, and only then could he eat.” Then, reflect as Ben Zoma did, “But I arise in the morning and find all these [foods laid] before me” (Tosefta Berachot 6:2). Imagine all the hands that were not your own that went into making your food.
  4. Notice who or where your idols are. What takes up too much space in your life? Then, try to let them go.

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