An Attitude for Gratitude
The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (5,19) contrasts the talmidim of Avrohom Avinu and those of Bila’am. Whilst the talmidim of Avrohom Avinu have עין טובה ורוח נמוכה ונפש שפלה, a good eye, a meek spirit and a humble soul, the talmidim of Bila’am have עין רעה ורוח גבוה ונפש רחבה, an evil eye, a haughty spirit and an arrogant soul.
After the mishna lists the three differences, it then continues to ask a seemingly strange question: what is the difference between these students?
מה בין תלמידיו של אברהם אבינו לתלמידיו של בלעם הרשע
תלמידיו של אברהם אבינו אוכלין בעולם הזה ונוחלין בעולם הבא…
But haven’t we just listed the differences? And what is the meaning of the answer “the students of Avrohom Avinu enjoy this world and also inherit the world to come”?
The Gemoro in Arachin (16b) speaks of the importance of not changing your travel lodgings. This is learned from Avrohom Avinu. Despite becoming wealthy in Mitzrayim, he stayed at the same lodging as he did on the way down to Mitzrayim.
And how far does this go? Take a look at the Gemoro – very far! According to Rav, only after the host attacks you can you move elsewhere. According to Shmuel, only when he throws your cases out.
Why should a guest have to endure torment from his host rather than move his lodgings elsewhere?
The answer is that the Gemoro is teaching us the importance of הכרת הטוב. Gratitude is critical. Avrohom Avinu felt so grateful to those who hosted him on his descent to Mitzrayim that the last thing he wanted to do was to offend them by staying elsewhere on his return. He could have afforded a five star hotel, but his desire to show gratitude was more important.
Bila’am was the opposite. He focused on the here and now and ignored the past. He therefore lashed out at his donkey and ignored years of prior service.
The difference between someone who has הכרת הטוב and someone who doesn’t is אוכלין בעולם הזה ונוחלין בעולם הבא. Aside from the spiritual rewards that await, it makes life in this world more pleasant.
Interestingly, academic studies show that gratitude is a key to happiness. And the good news is that gratitude is a trait that can be learned and developed. You can cultivate gratitude and happiness by consciously focusing on being appreciative for what you have.
In addition, the more you express gratitude—through reminding yourself of all you can appreciate, by writing down what you are grateful for or by sharing your thanks with someone else—the more happiness you’ll feel.
Chasing happiness is elusive and unlikely to succeed, but focusing on others, contributing to the community, being appreciative for what you have and expressing this appreciation, all create significant positivity and contentment.
One of the first Midrashim in the Torah says that the world was created for the mitzvah of bikkurim. The Alshich explains that this is to highlight the centrality of hakoras hatov – the message of bikkurim – in our avodas Hashem.
Perhaps this is what Chazal mean in Pirkei Avos. The difference between someone who has הכרת הטוב and someone who doesn’t is אוכלין בעולם הזה ונוחלין בעולם הבא. Gratitude is the key to happiness in this world and the next and is another timely and timeless lesson from our parsha.