The Limits of Gratitude

Sermon delivered April 20, 2012 by Rabbi Barry H.D. Block

September 11, 2001 was a tragic day, “a day that will live in infamy,” for the United States.  However, I have often heard people say that 9/11 had some positive results.  I’m told that we pulled together as Americans, or at least that we came to a deeper appreciation of the blessings of being Americans.  We banded together to support our troops.  We became more aware of the evil that threatens our way of life.
Some of these benefits of that tragic day are admittedly questionable.  We do not seem to me to be more united now than we were eleven years ago.  Moreover, many of us may recoil from the notion that we may be grateful for the results of a tragedy.  If we are thankful for the ways in which our nation is better since 9/11, does that mean we’re grateful for the terrorist attack itself?
Last night, our community observed Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Next week, we will celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence Day.  While the latter is, of course, celebrated on the anniversary of the day when Israel’s Declaration of Independence was signed, and the blue and white flag rose over the Jewish State, the truth is that we could commemorate the Holocaust on any day of the year.  Many reasons, not the least of them being the Warsaw rebellion, give rise to the date of Yom Hashoah, but surely the prelude to the establishment of Israel was at least part of the reason our Holocaust observance was fixed when it was.
Now, let’s be clear:  Israel is not merely a response to the Holocaust.  Instead, Zionists began settling Palestine with fervor, in response to a dream of two millennia, and with a passion for reclaiming Jewish soil, the land where our people was born.  However, it’s also true that Israel would not have been established when it was, were it not for the tremendous embarrassment of Jewish refugees that faced the world after the Holocaust.
But who among us would say that we are grateful for the Holocaust?  Were the deaths of six million – the brutal murders of innocent men, women, and children, for no reason but that they were Jewish – a reasonable price to pay for the establishment of the Jewish State?  Can we be grateful for any benefit that results from tragedy?
The Kotzker Rebbe once taught:  “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.”  Recently, in teaching Mussar, I have had the opportunity to talk with scores of our congregants about the ways in which painful moments in their lives have brought them unexpected joys.  To be sure, none of them has been victimized in a way that approaches the Holocaust, or the inferno of 9/11, and not all of them are grateful for the misfortune that befell them.  Still, they find that they are happier – more whole – if they can find gratitude, even in the most difficult moments of their lives.
Mussar groups work because of confidentiality.  So I am not only changing names, but also the particulars of the stories shared.  The point, though, is clear, from so many angles:  We can find gratitude, even through life’s greatest challenges.
Years ago, Sam lost his job, a position he enjoyed.  He liked his employer, and he felt valued at work.  Suddenly and unexpectedly, Sam’s job was outsourced overseas.  Sam was particularly stricken, because he had worked for the same company for decades, and he did not imagine ever having to look for a new job again.  But Sam did not wallow in self-pity.  In fact, his employer wanted him to stay for several weeks, maybe months, to ease the transition.  But Sam got his resume out there right away.  He explored possibilities that he never would have considered if his future had not been foreclosed at his former employer.  He left the old job well before the announced “last day,” took some time off, and then began a new position.  Now years later, that new job has brought Sam tremendous job satisfaction and, would you believe, higher pay.
Sam is grateful.  Yes, he still thinks his former employer unjust.  He is sickened by outsourcing and its impact on so many others, including friends and long-time colleagues.  But he is really is grateful that he lost that long-time job.  He would never have found today’s happiness without that loss.
Julia was pregnant, when she learned that her son might be born with profound disabilities.  She was angry, and you won’t be surprised that she was angry with God.  Julie did not seriously consider abortion, though she doesn’t judge those who would.  She believed that she and her husband possessed the inner resources necessary to care for a special needs child.
Now, Julia’s little boy is a full-grown man.  Ben is not as independent as Julia’s other grown children.  He will never have a family of his own or a career outside of sheltered workplaces.  Be that as it may, Ben is happy.  He is full of life and the most loving person you could ever hope to meet.  Julia asks herself:  If she had gotten to choose, knowing what she knows now, would she have asked for a “normal” son in place of the one she got?  She acknowledges that life would be easier if Ben did not have special needs. But she is also very grateful, perhaps even grateful that God gave her the unexpected joys of this happy, loving son who has no regrets about the life he does not lead.  Perhaps, in fact, Ben’s gratitude for his own life helps Julia to be grateful.
Unlike Julia and Ben, Maurice isn’t at all grateful for the sadness that befell him.  His wife, Jackie, was diagnosed with breast cancer when their children were in elementary school.  She fought valiantly, and Maurice was at her side every step of the way.  But Jackie’s cancer was especially aggressive.  The course of her disease was brutal.  Jackie suffered.  The children suffered.  And Maurice suffered, mostly in silence.  Maurice was thankful that hospice gave them some good time in the end, and that Jackie died at peace.  But that thankfulness was eclipsed by overwhelming sadness.  Maurice was grief-stricken, angry, and lonely.  Maurice did know he had cause for gratitude.  His children were well-adjusted and healthy.  He had a good job, and his employer gave him the time he needed.  Money didn’t complicate his loss.  He was mature enough to recognize those blessings, but they were understandably overshadowed by his pain.
Now, years later, Maurice’s children are grown.  His wife’s cancer wasn’t the type that is passed through the generations, and his children are happy.  Moreover, a few years ago, Maurice married Linda.  He remains close to Jackie’s family, and her photograph is found in appropriate places in the home he now shares with Linda, albeit not beside the bed where it used to be.  Linda and Maurice share a meaningful, loving marriage, for which he is endlessly grateful.  In some ways, Maurice knows that he could not have found the particular partnership he lovingly shares with Linda, were it not for the blessings of his marriage to Jackie and the experience of her illness and death.
Nobody would ask a question like:  “Are you grateful that Jackie got sick and died?”  Of course, he is not, and never will be.  At the same time, Maurice does know that he would not have gotten the life he loves with Linda were it not for the sadness and tragedy of the past.
Tonight, we read Parashat Tazria-Metzora, a section of the Torah about skin afflictions.  I do not imagine that the ancient leper, or whatever that disease really was, could be grateful for the illness. But I pray that, like Julia and Ben, like Sam and even like Maurice, those sufferers of biblical days could identify the blessings that came to them as a result of their suffering.
Every one of us will experience sadness in this lifetime.  Let us pray that those disappointments bring us at least some cause to give thanks.
Admittedly, there are and there ought to be limits to gratitude.  We cannot be thankful for unspeakable tragedies, no matter how significant the resulting blessing.  But we can, and we should, be grateful for the good we discover, even as we experience life’s unhappiness.
Let our gratitude, wherever we can find it, renew our faith in God, and in life.