The Art of Saying Todah

We frequently lack a sense of gratitude because we lack a proper sense of perspective.

15,000 families receive Kimcha D’pischa Passover food bundles (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
15,000 families receive Kimcha D’pischa Passover food bundles
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

According to our Sages, the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds on the seventh day of Passover, which is why we read the Song at the Sea on that day. The Torah describes this as a spontaneous reaction of gratitude to the miracle of crossing the sea on dry land, while their Egyptians pursuers drowned. “And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians… they had faith in the Lord and in his servant Moses. Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord...  ‘I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea’” (Exodus 14:31-15:1).

Yet, this is not surprising. A ragtag group of slaves had just been saved from the chariots of the most powerful king in their day by a Divine miracle which killed their oppressors and saved their lives. It was the most natural thing in the world for them to thank God and praise His name.

Gratitude is not a new human value. Poets and philosophers have emphasized the importance of saying thank you from time immemorial. Every Friday night we recite Psalm 92, written 3,000 years ago: “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, and to sing Your praise, oh exalted God.” 

In the 19th century, Robert Louis Stevenson said: “The man who has forgotten to be thankful, has fallen asleep in the midst of life.” Unfortunately, by Stevenson’s definition, most people are asleep. We do not express gratitude to God as we should; we do not thank our families as we could. 

But why is this so? Why do people neglect to thank each other? Why do people forget to praise God for His beautiful universe; for food, clothing and shelter? I believe there are three reasons for this human tendency.

THE FIRST  is that whenever something bad happens, we blame others or God, but whenever something good happens, we congratulate ourselves. As we read in the book of Deuteronomy (8:11-18): “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God… when you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and your flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered. Beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God – who freed you from the land of Egypt… and you say to yourselves: ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me!'. Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth!”

There is a second reason why we frequently lack a sense of gratitude – because we lack a proper sense of perspective. A personal story: I was scheduled to fly to the US on September 13, 2001. As a result of the horrendous attacks on September 11, my flight was cancelled; my meetings were cancelled; I didn't know if I would get there at all.  One of my friends said to me, “Why are you so calm?” I replied, “It's a matter of perspective – there are 5,000 missing and presumed dead in New York, the World Trade Center was destroyed and tens of thousands are stranded in airports all over the world. So why should I be upset?”

The third reason for our lack of gratitude is our attitude.  People tend to find in life what they expect to find. If they look for positive things worth being grateful for, they find them; if they look for negative things, they find them. 

As we learn from Ben Zoma in the Tosefta (Berakhot 6:2): “A grateful guest says: Bless my host! How many wines he brought out for us! How many portions he brought out for us! How many cakes he brought out for us! An ingrate says: What did I eat? One piece of bread, one cup of wine! Everything he made, he made for the sake of his wife and children!” The grateful guest and the ingrate ate the same food, yet one utters nothing but praise, while the other utters nothing but criticism. It’s all a question of attitude.

THESE THREE tendencies can be overcome by three techniques that have been used throughout the ages. Through them we can acquire the ability to say, “Todah.”

The first technique was summed up in a beautiful song by Irving Berlin: “If you’re worried and you can’t sleep, just count your blessings instead of sheep, and you’ll fall asleep, counting your blessings.” If we stop for a moment and actually count our blessings, we will be surprised to find that our blessings far outnumber our misfortunes. 

The second technique for cultivating an attitude of gratitude can be summed up in one of my favorite expressions: “If we all went to the marketplace hoping to exchange our troubles, we’d each come home with our own.”

The third and last technique for cultivating an attitude of gratitude is to learn how to verbalize our thanks. It’s not enough to think about how thankful we are to God; we must express it in our prayers. It’s not enough to think about how grateful we are to our families; we must tell them so, and often.

NOW WE can relate to our current situation, as we grapple with the corona pandemic in Israel and throughout the world. Our natural tendency is to gripe and complain: 25% of Israelis are unemployed! I cannot go to work! I could not attend a Seder with my children and grandchildren! I could not take a Passover field trip! I cannot walk more than 100 meters from my own house! 

All of this is true, but let us learn from Ben Zoma. We are much better off than past generations who experienced plagues like the Black Death, which killed between 75 and 200 million people, or the Spanish flu, which killed between 17 and 50 million people. They did not know the cause of those plagues and they could not heal those who became ill. The same is true of the many plagues recorded in the Bible, the Talmud, and the responsa literature. 

We in the State of Israel should be very grateful. We have a government that is doing everything that it can to save every life, that sends El Al planes to the ends of the earth to bring Israelis home We have an IDF that is distributing food parcels in Bnei Brak; doctors and nurses and thousands of volunteers who are testing people and curing people of all ages and every religion. We should thank God that we live in the State of Israel and thank all Israelis who are helping one another overcome this plague.

I hope and pray that we will get through this difficult period as quickly as possible and then, to use a phrase from the Haggadah: “We shall thank You with a new song for our redemption and for the liberation of our soul!”

Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin is the president of the Schechter Institutes, Inc. in Jerusalem.