Hamptons Soul: Attitude of Gratitude

top view of pumpkin pie, turkey and vegetables served at white wooden table with thank you card for Thanksgiving dinner
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Father Constantine Lazarakis of the Greek Orthodox Congregation, and Jewish Center of the Hamptons Rabbi Josh Franklin speak on the topic of gratitude, just in time for Thanksgiving.

Rabbi Josh Franklin

The Talmud, the great compendium of Jewish legal thought and wisdom, makes the following distinctions between good and bad dinner guests. “What does a good guest say?” asks the sage Ben Zoma: “My hosts have done so much on my behalf, they have served a fine meal with wine, meat and bread. They have done so much for me!” Bad dinner guests, on the other hand, what do they say? “My hosts didn’t do all that much. After all, I only ate one piece of meat, one piece of bread, and I drank only one cup of wine.” Such a guest concludes that “my hosts cooked mainly for themselves and their family, but not so much for me.” The good dinner guest and the bad dinner guest eat the same meal, have the same experience, and yet come to radically different conclusions. The difference between the two guests, the sages point out, is the virtue of gratitude.

Gratitude is not being thankful when we have abundance, it’s being satisfied with whatever it is that we have. Gratitude is less a feeling, and more of a state of mind that we practice. The Hebrew term for gratitude is “hakarat hatov,” which literally translates to “recognizing the good in things.” The implication is that the good is already there, yet practicing gratitude is merely about uncovering it and being able to see it. Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda, an 11th century Jewish philosopher and ethicist, teaches that there isn’t a person alive who hasn’t been given gifts, if only the gifts of life and hope, but we tend to suffer a kind of blindness that keeps us from seeing and appreciating what we have. If you find yourself in such a place where you can’t seem to see anything for which you might be grateful, it is taught that one should say: “We give thanks to you, God, for the mere ability to offer you thanks.”

Practicing gratitude isn’t easy, but it’s surely worth it. “Who is rich?” asks the rabbinic sage Ben Azzai, “the person who has joy in what they have.” There is no better time than a crisis or a pandemic to be reminded that there is still blessing and good in so many places in this world, we just have to work on being able to see it.

Father Constantine Lazarakis

Over the course of my life, I have met a handful of people with the uncanny ability to sincerely express gratitude — even under the worst of circumstances. I had a seminary professor who, when confronted with a problem, would exclaim “Glory to God in all things!” He would use this phrase where most people would place an expletive, but rather than invoking a curse, he would offer thanks. Similarly, I had a Sunday school teacher during my high school years, who would constantly instruct us that the challenges about which we so bitterly complained, were actually gifts. That today’s trials and tribulations were preparing us for tomorrow’s blessings; strengthening us, building our character and cultivating empathy for others.

Both of these figures, who were so important in my own formation, had a certain energy about them. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. They had a certain spring in their step, and a warm and welcoming tone, an undefeatable optimism, and a simplicity of heart. When you were in their presence, it was like feeling sunlight on your face. You always walked away feeling energized and refreshed, encouraged by the love they shared.

I love the Thanksgiving holiday — a day set aside for one thing, a day set aside for gratitude. Gratitude is transformative. As my seminary professor and Sunday school teacher taught me, giving thanks is not only transformative for the person who is thankful, but also for those who are around them. Gratitude is contagious. Jesus told his disciples, “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others …” (Matt. 5:14-16). This Thanksgiving, let’s all give thanks to God, for the good and for the bad, because gratitude has a way of transforming bad in to good. Let us adopt a year-round attitude of gratitude, so that we may be light to the world.

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