a black and white engraving of a crowd of people marching through a dessert
From "The March of the Israelites Through the Wilderness" by Charles Foster, 1897

If you’re grateful, don’t just say it — you have to feel it, too

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

I recently watched a viral video that attracted millions of views. Let me set the scene for you. It is a beautiful spring day. On the side of the road sits a blind man, begging for money. In front of him is a small tin can where passersby are supposed to put the change from their pockets. Beside him he placed a cardboard sign: “I’m blind, please help.”

His sign isn’t very successful though. A coin drops into the can every now and then. Most people just walk by.

After a while, a young lady comes along. She stops and looks at the cardboard sign for a moment. Then she takes it, turns it over and writes something on the back. Once she’s done, she puts the sign back in place, with her writing facing the front. Then she leaves without saying a word.

The blind man wasn’t able to see what she did, but he clearly notices a difference after she has left: More and more people toss their change into his tin can as they walk by, and the continuous sound of falling coins puts a smile on his face.

After a while, the young lady comes back to see how things are going. The blind man immediately recognizes the sound of her footsteps (his hearing sense is heightened) and asks, “What did you do to my sign?”

Your sign, she explains, read, “I’m blind, please help.” I wrote the same message, but in different words.” And then the camera turns to the cardboard, her writing finally revealed: “It’s a beautiful day. And I can’t see it.”

I wondered why there is such a big difference between two signs. The first, barely anyone gives. The second almost everyone gives. How can a simple phrase have such a dramatic impact on people’s behavior?

The answer, I think, is this: The first sign was a statement of fact. It is saying, I’ve got problems, help me. Most people passing by probably thought something like, “I’m busy. I don’t know who you are. I’ve got my own problems, leave me alone.”

But the “It’s a beautiful day, and I can’t see it” sign has a completely different effect. It makes us feel grateful. “It’s a beautiful day” makes us become aware of the fact that it is indeed a beautiful day. The sunshine, the lovely weather, the flowers blooming, the blue sky. We feel grateful. And feeling grateful triggers compassion and kindness. A little feeling of gratitude makes a big difference in the way we behave in our everyday interactions.

After watching that video, I understood an interesting argument about the command to remember our slavery in Egypt.

When the Jews were released from Egyptian slavery, the Torah commanded: “You must not mistreat or oppress the stranger in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18).

The Torah is telling us that the experience of our ancestors in Egypt should be life-changing. Having lived and suffered as strangers, we should become the people commanded to care for strangers. That is the normative understanding of this command.

The famous Baal Haturim, however, gives an alternative interpretation of this verse. He maintains that the verse to remember that we were slaves in Egypt does not refer to our suffering but rather to one incident that stands out in the centuries of our Egyptian exile. The Torah refers to the time right before the Exodus when the Egyptians wanted the Jews to leave. They told the Jews to hurry up and leave, and they gave the Jews gold and silver. It was this which allowed the Jews to emerge from slavery into freedom with the means to survive.

So the meaning of our passage, according to the Baal Haturim, is that we must base our compassion not upon our suffering but upon the one good thing the Egyptians did for us when we least expected it. That gratitude, rather than the misery, should cause us to be gracious and help others.

The Baal Haturim is arguing that, for many people, identifying personally with the disadvantaged is insufficient to bring about compassionate conduct (as the video illustrates).

So he understands the Torah’s verse to be emphasizing not the memory of suffering but the memory of gratitude, which leads to love and kindness.

You must be good not because you were unlucky, but because you were lucky. You must support the disadvantaged because you were once the recipient of a stranger’s favor.

Here is the key. It is not enough to think you are grateful. You have to feel it. It’s the feeling that makes the real difference.

Lots of people say they’re grateful, but they don’t take time to be grateful. It’s so easy in life to lose track of the beauty and grace of what we already have. If we don’t consciously take the time to do something each day to feel blessed and be grateful, then the frustration, anger, and stress of life tend to creep in and dominate.

This is why Judaism tells us to begin every day with a few minutes of gratitude.

It says first thing in the morning to stop and reflect on what you’re grateful for.

And it gives us a list to focus on: for the roof over my head, the food on my table, eyesight to see, the love in my life, the opportunities and the blessings I experience. It makes a point not only to notice, but also to deeply feel an appreciation for the little things that make life rich. It reminds us, “It’s a beautiful day. And I can see it.”

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.