Torah Tuesdays with Moses our Mentor: Shavuot and the Gratitude Attitude

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Vayikra/Levitcus 23:15 `You shall also count for yourselves from the day after the sabbath, from the day when you brought in the sheaf of the wave offering; there shall be seven complete sabbaths. 16 `You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh sabbath; then you shall present a new grain offering to the LORD. 17 `You shall bring in from your dwelling places two loaves of bread for a wave offering, made of two-tenths of an ephah; they shall be of a fine flour, baked with leaven as first fruits to the LORD. 18 `Along with the bread you shall present seven one year old male lambs without defect, and a bull of the herd and two rams; they are to be a burnt offering to the LORD, with their grain offering and their drink offerings, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD. 19 `You shall also offer one male goat for a sin offering and two male lambs one year old for a sacrifice of peace offerings. 20 `The priest shall then wave them with the bread of the first fruits for a wave offering with two lambs before the LORD; they are to be holy to the LORD for the priest. 21 `On this same day you shall make a proclamation as well; you are to have a holy convocation. You shall do no laborious work. It is to be a perpetual statute in all your dwelling places throughout your generations.

22 `When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien. I am the LORD your God.’ “

Deut 26:1 “Then it shall be, when you enter the land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance, and you possess it and live in it, 2 that you shall take some of the first of all the produce of the ground which you bring in from your land that the LORD your God gives you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place where the LORD your God chooses to establish His name. 3 “You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, `I declare this day to the LORD my God that I have entered the land which the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.’ 4 “Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the LORD your God. 5 “You shall answer and say before the LORD your God, `My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; but there he became a great, mighty and populous nation. 6 `And the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, and imposed hard labor on us. 7 `Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression; 8 and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and wonders; 9 and He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 `Now behold, I have brought the first of the produce of the ground which You, O LORD have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the LORD your God, and worship before the LORD your God; 11 and you and the Levite and the alien who is among you shall rejoice in all the good which the LORD your God has given you and your household.

Shavuot is about gratitude. And gratitude strengthens and purifies the soul. But ingratitude is a soul destroying habit.   

  1. images-1Shavuot is a special time of gratitude for the gift of Torah – Just as Sukkot ends the High Holiday Season, Shavuot ends the Passover season.       At Passover, we were set freed from enslavement to Pharaoh, but we were not truly free until we received the Torah at Sinai, because only serving God is perfect freedom. All else leads to servitude to something or someone less. On Shavuot we received Torah and became a Kingdom of priests and a holy nation living in grateful service to God and His Holy instruction, Torah.
  2. Shavuot is a special time of gratitude for the gift of the harvest (sustenance)
  3. Shavuot is a special time of gratitude for the gift of community (it is a time when we became a nation with our Torah-constitution, and also the time when we receive converts and read the Book of Ruth, which speaks of harvest and of converts)
  4. Shavuot is a special time of gratitude for the gift of the Spirit –  The Day of Pentecost was Shavuot!   It was the time when Hashem poured out gift of the Spirit on the Jewish disciples—a gift from which we continue to reap benefit, just as we continue to benefit from harvest, from the gift of Torah, and from being constituted a people for God’s glory.
  5. Shavuot is a special time of gratitude that the Jewish people throughout time are our family—and this is a family affair.

Gratitude is the foundation of happiness. Shavuot is about gratitude and therefore about happiness.

Dennis Prager speaks extensively about happiness in his popular book, “Happiness is a Serious Problem.”  He reminds us there that “We are morally obligated to be as happy as we can be.” It is not selfish to want to be happy. It is our obligation to the people we love and live with to be as bearable as we can be. Happiness, Prager says, is altruistic! He believes that it important that there be more good people in the world, that is, people who do what is right. He believes furthermore, that this goodness flows from personal happiness, and that happy people are far more likely to be good people. And, just as he sees happiness to be the foundation of goodness, so he sees gratitude as the foundation of happiness.

Ingratitude is “the easy way out.” It takes no spark or conviction to be bummed out by life. What a dull syllogism: Life isn’t working out for me, therefore the whole world sucks, therefore I’m gonna wear my negative attitude like a sandwich-board sign. “Any jerk can be unhappy — it takes effort, talent, and skill to be happy!” And I would say it takes no effort to be ungrateful, although ingratitude erodes the soul and undermines happiness, because gratitude is the foundation of happiness.

Do you want to be happy? Then develop the habit of doing the right thing, and not the easy thing. The easy thing is not always wrong, and the right thing is not always hard. But when there is a choice between going easy on yourself or doing the hard and right thing, the choice you make will build your character, as a person who does what is right, or a person who does what is convenient and weakens character. And expressing gratitude is the more demanding and soul-strengthening alternative.

It is right for us to stand with one another and to stand with the Jewish community throughout time in expressing our gratitude to God at this time for the gift of community of harvest, of Torah, of the Spirit.

In his book, Prager reminds us to Kow that everything has a price.Milton Friedman’s philosophy of economics dovetails perfectly with Dennis Prager’s philosophy of life: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” We know the price of things we buy, he said, but not the price of things we don’t buy. But we are paying a price for what we buy, whether it is in dollars or time or self-respect or lost trust or meaning. And when we don’t do something we pay a price for what we do instead, and fail to reckon with the better bargain we might have had from the thing we failed to choose. Everything has a price tag in time and effort, even if not in money.

In other words, as you and I decide whether or not we will do something inconvenient as an expression of our faith, we need to do a costs benefits analysis: what will not doing this thing cost me? And what is the benefit or value of the thing I chose to do instead? Am I trading something of higher value for something of lower value? This is always a good question.

The 3.5 hours the average American spends watching the tube every night could be spent doing something else — reading, or talking, or doing things with our families. TV watching isn’t free— it costs you a chunk of your life that you can never experience again any other way. Why does this matter? Because it makes us pay attention, and paying attention is critical to happiness.

We are all paying a price for whatever we will do or won’t do today. Everything costs something, and some of us have become habituated to trading valuable things for things of lesser value. This is a fool’s bargain.

Shavuot is one of those great opportunities God gives us to develop gratitude habits. Tal Ben-Shahar is one of Harvard University’s most popular professors. His classes on happiness attract 1400 students per semester, approximately 20 percent of the student body. In his excellent book “Happier,” he says this:

UnknownIn research done by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, those who kept a daily gratitude journal—writing down at least five things for which they were grateful—enjoyed higher levels of emotional and physical well-being.

If you do this exercise regularly, you will naturally repeat yourself, which is perfectly fine. The key is, despite the repetition to keep the emotions fresh; imagine what each item means to you as you write it down, and experince the feeling associated with it. Doing this exercise regularly can help you to appreciate the positive in your life rather than take it for granted” (10-11).

We can all see how this information is deeply and directly related to what the Bible says about Shavuot.[1] There are many kinds of gratitude habits we should form. In addition to listing five things to be grateful for at the end of each day, I recommend being a maniac about sending birthday cards, anniversary cards, condolence cards, and thank you cards. All of these are expressions of gratitude. We used to have friend of my congregation whose mother was so faithful in sending out scores of birthday cards that one of her relatives knew she was sick one year simply because she didn’t receive a birthday card from her. “For me not to have gotten a birthday card from Marie means she must be sick.” And she was.

When a community forms habits they hold in common, we call those habits traditions. Shavuot is a gratitude tradition of the Jewish people. It is true that many Jews don’t observe Shavuot. It is also true that many Jews don’t send out birthday and anniversary cards. But does this make it a good idea to not send out cards, to not make those phone calls, to not undertake the inconveniences of gratitude?   Of course not. Desiderius Erasmus is apparently the source of a quotation often attributed to others. He says this: We sow our thoughts, and we reap our actions; we sow our actions, and we reap our habits; we sow our habits, and we reap our characters; we sow our characters, and we reap our destiny.

So if you are going somewhere to celebrate Shavuot tonite or tomorrow, Mazel Tov.  Let this be just one example of a time when you took the trouble to be grateful. And gratitude is the gift that keeps on giving.





[1] This relevance also applies to many other events on the Jewish calendar, most certainly to the three pilgrimage festivals—Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, all gratitude festivals which required all Jews to assemble three times a year as a community to rejoice before the Lord. There is tremendous wisdom here, wisdom from God. Such rituals produce a foundation of gratitude and joy. And of course every week, shabbat is another ritual designed to deepen this joyful foundation. Could it be that one reason many Jews are no longer joyful, spending years and fortunes on doctors and therapists, is that we have forsaken the foundations of joy which God laid for us in practices like these?

1 Comment

  1. Excellent post as usual, Rabbi Dauermann. Prager’s views on gratitude and happiness have much shaped my own; seeing how you applied that to Shavuot made this post particularly enjoyable for me.

    p.s. I shared this post via Twitter, and Mr. Dennis Prager retweeted it to his audience. Cool!

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