Saturday, November 23, 2013

Learning Gratitude (Idaho Statesman, November 23)

Gratitude comes relatively easily in good times.  Even though we must always guard against taking abundance for granted, it is natural to feel thankful when we are healthy, successful and surrounded by friends and family who, themselves, enjoy the fruits of good fortune.

It is much more daunting to be grateful when things are not going well.  When we and our loved ones suffer, we incline toward anger, depression, and bitterness.  And yet, in this season of Thanksgiving, many of us will face precisely this test: how to give thanks despite ongoing physical, material, emotional, and spiritual hardships.  This is the true trial of the measure of our gratitude.  How do we wrestle blessing out of darkness and despair?

The book of Genesis offers an unlikely but inspiring role model in the person of the fourth and final matriarch, Leah.  Jacob is tricked into marrying her and only does so in order to also marry her younger and prettier sister, his beloved Rachel.  Leah is unloved—Torah even describes her as “hated”—and unappreciated.  Jacob does not even make an effort to hide his feelings of disdain for her.

We see Leah’s loneliness and disappointment in the names that she gives to her first three children.  She calls the oldest Reuven, from the Hebrew word for love (ahavah) and declares: “Now my husband will love me.”  No such luck.  She names the second Shimon, from a Hebrew word meaning “to hear” (shama) and proclaims: “This is because God heard that I was unloved and gave me this one, too.”  By the third boy’s arrival, Leah has given up on love and would settle for even an amicable connection to Jacob, as she prays: “This time my husband will become ‘attached’ (from the same root as the child’s name, Levi) to me, for I have borne him three sons.”  Not surprisingly, this, too, goes nowhere.

But then the pattern shifts radically.  Leah names her fourth child Judah, which comes from the Hebrew root meaning “to give thanks” and exults: “This time I will offer praise to God!”

What has happened here?  Rabbi Shai Held notes: “Leah has found the courage to accept that her life is not going to turn out as she had hoped.  She has spent years aching for the love of her husband.   But now she sees that this constant yearning will only generate more fantasy and illusion and the steadily mounting pain of a dream dashed time and time again.  Something inside of her shifts, and rather than sinking in the sorrow of what she does not have, she is able to embrace the beauty and fullness of what she does. . . Leah is disappointed, and as we have seen, she has every right to be.  But now she is also grateful—despite the intensity of her pain, she, too, has her blessings.  With the birth of Judah, Leah has discovered the awesome capacity to feel grateful even amidst her sorrows.”

Leah’s challenge remains for us, her descendants—and her example inspires us to rise to meet that challenge, as she so remarkably did.  May this Thanksgiving weekend call us all to a renewed sense of gratitude, in good times and, especially, in trying ones, too.

For a terrific poem on the subject, by WS Merwin, see:

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