When thinking about how we can improve our character, a variety of approaches may come to mind: guarding the way we talk about others, lending a helpful hand at a time of need, or perhaps even trying to be a more observant and religious person. While all of the above are quite laudable, what's frequently overlooked is a foundational trait that all people of good character share: gratitude, or hakarat hatov in Hebrew. You'd be surprised at how crucial gratitude is when it comes to producing a happier and more decent human being.
Just think about it for a moment. If you believe that you are so deserving, so entitled, so above others - how on earth is it possible to become a better person? On the other hand, if you are so grateful to God for being alive during these historic times, so humbled by all the good things you've been given, so appreciative for the opportunities to improve yourself - the type of person you become will be totally different. A better attitude goes a long way.
Even during these difficult times, find something in your own life for which to be thankful. The Hebrew term for Jew, Yehudi, comes from the word meaning "one who thanks." Gratitude is one of the pillars of Judaism and should be an essential part of all our lives. In fact, many of us celebrated the unique American holiday of Thanksgiving last week. Here's some further reading on Jews and Thanksgiving: An American Yom Tov (unfortunately, many of the comments on the article reaffirm the mission of this blog). I actually intended to post this entry last week, but I was busy tending to a family matter.
During the early hours of Thanksgiving day, my grandmother passed away. While I thought it would be challenging to exude gratitude after the death of a loved one, it actually wasn't all that difficult. Throughout the week of shiva, the traditional seven-day mourning period, there was a great deal for which to be thankful. Family and friends from all around the world shared stories of times with my grandmother. Others came to participate in the daily prayer services. And, of course, members from throughout the Jewish community brought meals for my father and aunt (what would a Jewish gathering be without food?).
Most importantly, however, this period of mourning brought members of my immediate and distant family together for the first time in a long time. Amazingly enough, everyone behaved themselves. As an eerie comparison, I couldn't help but think of all the tragedies to befall the Jewish people throughout our history and the subsequent outpouring of compassion and kindness from fellow Jews. We always talk about the lofty goal of unity, but we never seem to act on it until the circumstances absolutely call for us to do so. It should never take some terrible event to compel an improvement in how we treat others. If only it didn't take something as drastic as death to provide the impetus for that change, I would be even more grateful.