In October, I gave a talk to a group of rabbis, and my topic was gratitude. It’s a fundamental principle of my teaching that I cite only Jewish sources (except for the occasional reference to Monty Python), but I could find no better text to represent the Jewish view of gratitude than the poem “Listen” by the decidedly un-Jewish W.S. Merwin.
He begins benignly, though with a touch of ecstasy:
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions
Then the tone suddenly turns dark:
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you …
You can find the full poem at http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20492, but this is enough of an excerpt to give you a sense of where he is taking us in his ruthless demand for gratitude. Looking up at the sky and uttering gratitude for the magnificence of creation is not hard to fathom. But why thank you “after funerals”? Why gratitude when “remembering wars and the police at the door”? For “beatings on the stairs”?
It’s remarkable how Talmudic the son of a Presbyterian minister can be!
How so? Well, this poem seems to be exploring the same emotional territory as does the Talmud when it offers the teaching that a person is obligated to say a blessing when good things happen in life but also a blessing over things that happen that are bad. “One must bless for the bad as one blesses for the good, and for the good as one blesses for the bad” (Berachot 54a). The Talmud elsewhere tells us that the correct response to someone who praises only the good that comes into his or her life is to silence that person (Berachot 33b).
It seems, then, that our sages would approve of Merwin’s lines:
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
How can we possibly be expected to express gratitude for the tragedies and misfortunes that befall us? Following are three thoughts on that subject.
First, while we are expected to bless the bad as well as the good, the blessings we are told to say are not the same. “On good news say, ‘Blessed be He who is good and beneficent.’ On bad news say, ‘Blessed be the true Judge.’” Our blessing on a negative event or news is not meant to be a statement of gratitude but rather an acknowledgement that God is sovereign and, through these words, we submit to the scheme of divine righteousness, even though we might have no way of understanding how this particular misfortune could be just.
Second, it is sometimes impossible to know the good from the bad while the story is just unfolding. There are so many instances of the good luck that turned out to contain the seed of a disaster, and conversely the apparent catastrophe that ultimately turned out to be a beneficent gift.
The Talmud concludes the discussion above with a classic example of this phenomenon. Rabbi Akiva is forced to camp in a field one night because he could not find a room in town. He has in his possession a candle, a rooster and a donkey. “Everything God does is for the good,” he asserts, and he repeats that conviction when the candle is blown out and wild animals eat both the rooster and the donkey. In the morning he awakes to discover that marauders had ransacked the town. Had the light shone, the rooster crowed or the donkey brayed, his presence would have been betrayed. “Everything God does is for the good”—ultimately, beyond the chapter we find ourselves in today, when the whole story will have been told.
Finally, as finite human beings we cannot claim access to the large master plan for life and the playing out of history. Our knowledge and capacity to understand are very limited, and we do not have the capacity to draw final conclusions about difficult times, or even good ones, for that matter. We are obligated to choose the good and to strive for the good, but we do not have the capacity to be the ultimate judge of what goes on in our lives. “Blessed be the true Judge,” we say because we ourselves are not the true judges. That capacity lies elsewhere.
These ideas help us understand where Merwin’s poem ends:
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
Yes, dark though it is, in humility and acknowledgement that we are not privy to the big picture and aware that the ink writing the story is still wet, we utter our gratitude. Only because we are alive can we experience any of this, and for life itself, we say thank you.