Can We Be Worthy?

Rabbi Avi Strausberg

Thanksgiving 5784

It can be hard to say thank you.  I see it in my kids and I see it in myself.  In moments when my wife and I go out of our way to do something special for the kids—a trip to a museum they’ve been waiting for, a special movie date with snacks, maybe even a new bike—I know they appreciate the gift, and yet rarely do we get the gratitude, or simple thank you, that we hope for.

I know, for myself, sometimes after abandoning the kitchen at night to a sinkful of dishes and a couch covered in clothes waiting to be folded, I wake up in the morning to a clean sink and folded clothes, and I find myself so grateful to my wife’s midnight work.  Obviously, I should say thank you.  I owe her more than just a thank you.  Yet it’s hard for me.  There can be something awkward about gratitude.  There is something uncomfortable about admitting that you are indebted to someone else.  Because, in truth, I feel not only gratitude, but guilt that she did this work while I slept.

In Bereishit, when Ya’akov prepares to meet Esav after many years of separation, anxious about what this reunion will bring, he says before God:

בראשית לב:יא
קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל־הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת־עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי בְמַקְלִי עָבַרְתִּי אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת׃
Genesis 32:11
I was small (katonti) of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.

It is not clear exactly what Ya’akov means by “small” in this context.  In Bereishit Rabbah, R. Abba bar Kahana and R. Levi debate the precise meaning of this phrase:

בראשית רבה עו:ה
אָמַר רַבִּי אַבָּא בַּר כַּהֲנָא אֵינִי כְּדַאי.  רַבִּי לֵוִי אָמַר כְּדַאי אֲנִי אֲבָל קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל וגו'.
Bereishit Rabbah 76:5
R. Abba bar Kahana said: I am not worthy.  R. Levi said:, I am worthy but I am made small.

Our modern translations of this verse in Genesis (like JPS) generally follow R. Abba bar Kahana who says katonti means “אֵינִי כְּדַאי - I am not worthy.”  R. Levi, in contrast says, “כְּדַאי אֲנִי אֲבָל קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל - I am worthy but I am small.”  Or, perhaps, “I am made small.”  Whereas for R. Abba bar Kahana gratitude is mixed up with unworthiness, R. Levi says, no, it’s not that I am not worthy.  I am worthy, but perhaps with each act of generosity I receive from you, I am made small: I become more and more in your debt.1 

Both of these translations here resonate for me and speak to part of what makes saying thank you, especially when we most want to, so difficult.  Either this expression of gratitude brings up for us a sense of inadequacy that we are not worthy of whatever generosity was bestowed upon us,  or perhaps we do feel deserving, but as a result of this generosity, we now feel indebted and made small.

As we approach Thanksgiving, how do we both foster a sense of gratitude and actually do the work of saying thanks— without making ourselves small in the process?  Can we be both worthy of these gifts of generosity, and grateful?

R. Natan Zvi Finkel, in his 20th century Musar work the Or ha-Tzafun, teaches a lot about the importance of cultivating a practice of gratitude:

ומדה זו של הערכת חהסד והכרת הטובה חייבת להיות כה מושרשת באדם, עד שהוא צריך להרגיש אותה לא לגבי בר דעת בלבד, כי אם גם לגבי כל דבר שיש לו ממנה איזו טובת הנאה שהיא, לרבות בעלי חיים, צומחים ודוממים, אם כי טובתם באה מאליהם ולא שייכת לגבם כל הודאה.
And this attribute of appreciating kindness and recognizing goodness has to be so firmly enrooted in a person that they must feel not only about people but also regarding anything from which they enjoy goodness, including animals, plants, and objects, even though their goodness comes through their simple existence and gratitude is not relevant.

Developing a practice of gratitude is not only about responding to individual moments of blessing throughout our day, but rather is fundamentally about our orientation to the world.  We must, in our core, be deeply grateful for any and all blessings we receive, whether they come to us through people or animals or plants.  

This practice of gratitude, while inspiring, when taken with the text from Bereishit Rabbah and the potential for gratitude to lead to feelings of indebtedness, discomfort, or unworthiness, could be overwhelming.

However, at the same time that R. Natan Zvi Finkel preaches gratitude, he also preaches worthiness.  In the section of Or ha-Tzafun called Sefer Toldot Adam, he writes about the way in which Adam ha-Rishon, the first person, stands in for all people.  In the same way that Adam was worthy of having an entire paradise created for him just by being born into the world, so too we, as the descendants of that first person, are worthy of having worlds of paradise and delight created anew for us each and every day.  We say this in the blessings of the Shema of Shaharit as we pray in the present tense to the One “Who creates anew, with God’s goodness, each day continuously, the work of creation.”

But this generosity, this gift of worlds created anew, comes with an obligation:

אם כן בכל רגע שהאדם מחסר מעבודתו לאלהים, הוא מאבד אותם ומחריבם במו ידיו לו ולכל העולם כולו… וכשם שברגע אחד ראוי האדם לזכות לכל העולמות כולם…כן אם יסיח דעתו לרגע ולא ינצל אותה למטרת עבודתו לה׳ יתברך, הוא מקלקל אותם ומאבדם חס ושלום.

אם כן, איפוא, זאת היא חובת האדם להתבונן ולהכיר מהו ערכו.  וכמה יקר ערכו של רגע בחייו.
At any moment that a person is lacking in their worship for God, they lose these worlds and with their hand destroys them, for themselves and for the entire world…  In the same way that in a moment, a person is fit to merit all of the worlds… and similarly, if a person is distracted for a moment, and doesn’t take advantage of it for the purpose of their worship of the Holy Blessed One, they destroy and make lost the worlds, God forbid.

Therefore, this is a human being’s obligation:  to contemplate and to recognize their worth—and how precious is the value of  every moment in their life.  

For R. Finkel, the answer to the question, “can we be both grateful and worthy,” is a resounding yes.  He says, don’t think for a second that you are not worthy of having all of the delights of the world created for you each and every day; you are.  And you should be grateful for each of these gifts.  

Finkel holds worthiness, gratitude, and responsibility hand in hand.  Part of knowing your worthiness and knowing your value is living up to this value.  It’s precisely because we are worthy and we recognize the value of our lives that we have an obligation to serve God and to live up to the fullness of our potential as human beings.  

As we approach this Thanksgiving, I encourage us to think about our own personal experiences around gratitude.  Does saying thank you come easily to us?  What feelings does it bring up for us?  To the extent that it may evoke feelings of discomfort, it’s okay to name and acknowledge these—certainly our rabbis did; but I want to push us in a different direction.  For the gifts that we receive this year, may we find a way to be both grateful and worthy.  Recognizing that we are deserving allows us not only to accept the generosity we receive with a full-hearted gratitude untinged by uncomfortable emotions: it also pushes us to continue to be worthy of these gifts that we receive.


1 See also Rav Hanan on Bavli Ta’anit 20b who uses this verse to talk about a different kind of diminution when you receive acts of generosity.