The early morning call devastated me. My friend Feigie’s beloved husband had died of a heart attack while exercising on the treadmill in their bedroom the night before. My mind whirled in shock:

He was only 54! Their daughter Esti is only seven! Moshie will have to become Bar Mitzvah without his father! How will Feigie manage with her big family without her husband?

Late that afternoon while on my way to Brooklyn to pay a shiva call, I dreaded the scene that I would encounter. I had never ever seen Feigie without a smile. I could not even imagine her as a broken, sobbing widow. However, when I entered her living room, Feigie greeted me with a hug, a smile, and the astonishing words, “I couldn’t be more grateful for the way he died—suddenly, without suffering. I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Grateful? How had gratitude insinuated its way into this tragedy? How could Feigie cull from her catastrophe something to be grateful for, like finding a nugget of gold in a morass of mud?

How had gratitude insinuated its way into this tragedy?

I sat there perplexed, watching Feigie in her low mourner’s chair cheerfully speaking about what a great life her husband had had and how fortunate he was to get the very last grave in the old Belzer section of the cemetery. Her irrepressible happiness was like a bright red buoy bobbing up and down in a black, stormy sea. I listened in total cognitive dissonance. The cloud had been totally eclipsed by its silver lining.

Finally, I turned to Feigie’s sister and asked, “How does she do it?”

Her sister replied, “She gets it from our mother. She’s the same way. Our mother and her sister were born in Rumania before the Holocaust. When our mother talks about her childhood, it’s the stuff of great adventure novels. ‘We hid from the Nazis. It was high intrigue. Then the Russians came and we fled. We made our way to Palestine. It was all so exciting.’ But when our aunt tells the same story,” and here her voice assumed a mournful tone, “she tells it like a tragedy. ‘We had to hide from the Nazis. Then the Russians came and we had to flee. It was terrible. We had to make our perilous way to Palestine. It was dreadful.’ They lived the same life, but you’d never know it.”

Then she added, “Feigie inherited her happy nature from our mother. I didn’t get that gene.”

I looked at Feigie’s mother, sitting there in the shiva house of her just-widowed daughter. The radiant smile on her face and the smooth skin that betrayed her age made me wonder, Is there a gene for happiness?

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The Happiness-Gratitude Connection

In fact, psychological studies do indicate that people have a “set happiness level.” One study revealed that whether a person wins the lottery or becomes paralyzed from the neck down, three to six months after the event, his/her happiness level returns to what it was before.

This finding bothered Professor of Psychology Robert Emmons of the University of California in Davis. He launched an experimental investigation for a way to “nudge up the happiness set point.” His experiments revealed the agent that indeed produces long-term happiness:  gratitude. Prof. Emmon’s experiments showed that keeping a gratitude journal increases long-term happiness levels by 25%.

Professor Emmons’s research is significant not only because it scientifically links gratitude to happiness, but also because it shows that the trait of gratitude can be acquired.

In a 2007 interview, Professor Emmons was asked: “One can expect few negative side effects from keeping a gratitude journal. What do you think prevents more people from benefiting from these research findings?”

Prof. Emmons responded: “Great question, I reflect often on that. My sense is that some people feel uncomfortable talking about these topics, since they may sound too spiritual, or religious. Others simply don’t want to feel obligated to the person who helped them.”

Thanking requires an object.

The word “thank” in English is a transitive verb; thanking requires an object. You can be grateful to your parent or your spouse, your first-grade teacher, the garbage collectors, or Steve Jobs. But to whom can you be grateful for the birth of a healthy baby? For a magnificent sunset? For your perfectly functioning immune system?

That’s where God comes in. As Prof. Emmons pointed out, gratitude has spiritual or religious overtones. That’s because when people are willing to acknowledge the good they have received, the trail of beneficence usually ends up at the source: God. This is true both of natural phenomena and of the events that happen to people.

Two days after Feigie’s husband died, her married son Beri, his wife Malka, and their two young children, who live in Israel, flew to New York for the shiva. Malka was six months pregnant. After the shiva, Beri and Malka, in order to be a support for his bereaved mother and younger siblings, decided to stay in New York and have the baby there. They moved in with Feigie, in some ways filling the hole that the death had left.

The baby was born in Brooklyn. Hours after the birth, she stopped breathing—due to T.G.A., a potentially fatal birth defect where the vessels of her heart were transposed. The world’s leading expert on T.G.A. is Dr. Jan Quaegebeur, who developed a complicated surgical procedure to correct the defect. Dr. Quaegebeur “happens” to work at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. As soon as the defect was discovered, the baby was rushed to Columbia Presbyterian. Dr. Quaegebeur immediately did a procedure to keep the baby alive, and a few days later performed the 7-hour surgery that saved the baby’s life.

Feigie and her family were overwhelmed with gratitude at the Divine Providence that had ordained that the baby would be born in New York rather than at home in Israel.

Gratitude leads not only to joy, but also to relationship.

When a beneficial happening is experienced as a “coincidence,” there is no one to be grateful to. When it is experienced as an act of Divine Providence, the gates of gratitude—and of love--swing open. The difference between coincidence and a blessing from God is the difference between finding a diamond ring on the sidewalk and being presented a diamond ring by the person who wants to marry you. An engagement ring is worth much more than its retail value.

When we experience everything in our life—from our immune system to being in the right place at the right time --as a gift from God, we live in a relationship with a God who loves us. Gratitude leads not only to joy, but also to relationship. 

Passover: The Holiday of Gratitude

Passover is the holiday of gratitude. The Redemption from Egypt was a free gift. God redeemed the Jewish People not because we were worthy (we were on almost the lowest level of spiritual impurity) but because He loved us and wanted to establish a relationship with us. As it says in the final verse of the Shema: “I am the Lord your God Who took you out of the Land of Egypt in order to be for you a God.”

Likewise, the inner liberation that is available to every Jew on Passover is not a reward for our worthiness, but a free gift. The appropriate response is gratitude. Even more than “thank you,” the appropriate response, like when being presented with a diamond ring by the beloved, is to say, “Yes, I want a relationship with you. Yes, I understand that this gift represents your love for me.”

The historical liberation from Egypt came after 210 years of bondage, which included 80 years of psychological and physical torture, of precious babies being murdered, of sadistic mind games designed to break our ancestors’ spirit. Every Jew who left Egypt had a choice: whether to focus on the miracles of the Exodus or the suffering that had preceded it.

Indeed, the periodic complaining—for water and food—during the years in the desert came from those who allowed their suffering to eclipse their gratitude. This is a choice that every human being makes.

At the Seder, the symbols of both suffering and redemption are laid out before us: salt water representing tears, bitter herbs representing hardship, choroses representing the mortar of our slave labor, karpas representing new life, and the matzah representing both affliction and liberation. The Seder should take us to a state of celebrating our redemption instead of being stuck in our sorrows.

People like Feigie show us that, even amidst tragedy, it is possible to recognize the gold nuggets—the gifts of God’s love—and to be grateful.

Passover is the holiday of freedom. What freedom is more liberating than the freedom to respond to whatever happens to us with gratitude?