The month of Elul brings forth many different emotions, thoughts and insights. It is, after all, meant to be a month of introspection and serious self-analysis. And, one of the values that this month is meant to evoke in our minds and thoughts is that of gratitude. The rabbis of the Talmud saw gratitude as being one of the most basic values of Judaism.
Since nothing in life is perfect and we are constantly beset by annoyances, frustrations, dashed hopes and unending pressures, we naturally tend to overlook the positive and to dwell instead on life's negatives. In so doing, we become guilty of ingratitude and narcissistic selfishness.
Again, the rabbis of the Talmud stated that as long as one is alive there is no room for complaints and dissatisfaction. In that statement they meant to inform us that one must always see the large picture, the broad perspective of human life and not concentrate only upon the details that so often confound us.
I knew a person that tragically lost sight in one eye. Whenever I spoke to him he reminded me how grateful he was that he still had good sight in his other eye. I always marveled at him for that attitude, for most of us would find it difficult not to dwell upon the sad fact that one of our eyes no longer functioned properly.
Unless one has a sense of gratitude for what one has, one will always feel cheated and frustrated by what one does not have. And since all of us, at one time or another, always feel that we are lacking something, life takes on a very dim and dark hue. The old adage to count one's blessings, like most old adages, has a great deal of wisdom and truth to it.
The Jewish view of the human relationship with the Almighty is based on this emotion of gratitude. The experience of life is so precious, allowing for the development and expansion of our souls, that it is the supreme gift that can be granted to us. And that gift is given to us ultimately by our Creator.
The Jewish prayer book is filled with expressions of gratitude and feeling directed toward Heaven. The opening thoughts and words upon awakening in the morning acknowledge gratitude that one is still alive and that the Lord, so to speak, has renewed one's life for another day.
When we are young we have a tendency to accept life as a given. However, as we age and as we witness our generation slowly but inexorably departing this world, we no longer take being alive for granted. It is at this point in one's human existence that gratitude becomes a vital factor in one's thought processes and personality.
Elul is the closing month of the year. Because of our realization that it marks the end of something, we are able to devote ourselves to serious thought and sometimes painful self-analysis. Youth always faces forward while the old folks have the ability to look backwards as well and to place the events of their lives into a broader perspective and a more meaningful picture.
The relationship to teachers, parents, mentors, employers, even government itself, is based almost completely on this value of gratitude. Our parents gave us life and raised us. We may remember their all too natural human failings, but in the main, this in no way diminishes the gifts that they gave us in bringing us into this world.
The Torah emphasizes this point time and again, in repeating the sacred commandment of honoring and caring for one's parents. It is seen as being a form of honoring and expressing gratitude to the Creator Himself. The same idea applies to our teachers and mentors who gave us an education, knowledge and in many cases, inspiration and direction. While the perfect teacher does not exist, as all human beings have weaknesses and failings, those people taught us the basic tools of intelligent life and are to be remembered with gratitude.
The great Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik would stand to honor his first grade teacher who taught him the Hebrew alphabet, even when Rabbi Chaim was world-famous for his genius, knowledge and depth of Talmudic analysis. The tendency in life is to often overlook those who may have helped us the most. We give very little thought to our first-grade teacher and many of us are unable even to recall the name of that person. Nevertheless, the month of Elul evokes within me these types of memories and the feelings of gratitude that accompany this process of thought.