This past Sunday I was watching CBS News Sunday Morning and learned about Pharrell Williams and his hit song “Happy.” I had heard the song (I am of course forever attending seventh grade parties) and had already noted that I liked it, but knew little about its writer.
I was taken with Pharrell Williams’ humility and his gratitude to others. Williams gives credits to his teachers, remarking that his success is due largely to them and then concludes, "You see people spin out of control like that all the time. I mean, those are the most tragic stories, the most gifted people who start to believe it's really all them. It's not all you. It can't be all you. Just like you need air to fly a kite, it's not the kite. It's the air.”
Years ago, perhaps on another Sunday morning, I was reading the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides Guide of the Perplexed (III:12). In it he remarked that people often complain to God about all they don’t have. They chase after riches so that might be able to enjoy more. They fail to see that they already have untold wealth. Look at the world with different eyes, Maimonides counsels. That which is most prized is less abundant and that which is most plentiful we take for granted. We pine after diamonds and jewels. We take for granted the water we drink and the air we breathe.
We yearn for fine wine when we could instead be thankful for water. And thus Maimonides reasons that we should change our perspective and thank God for the gift of air, the taste of water, a morsel of bread (or today’s matzah). When we see how plentiful is the very air we breathe and when we ascribe that as a gift from God we have no choice but to be grateful and discover joyful hearts. If your cup always needs to be refilled with wine then the soul can never be sated. If instead you fill the heart with thanks and praises then the soul is stirred to happiness.
Likewise the Seder’s Dayyenu continues to linger in my ears. “If God had only brought us out of Egypt. Dayyenu—That would have been enough for us!” And the list continues. If God had only given us the Torah, if God had only given us Shabbat. Dayyenu! That would have been enough. How often do such words really fall from our lips? How often do we say that would have been enough? “What only brisket and no turkey?” some still say. Breathe in. Thank God for the riches that are always provided and swirl about in the sky’s gentle breezes and the currents of the waters. It’s not me. It’s You God. It’s not the kite that I fashioned. It’s instead the air that carries it throughout the heavens.
That is the primary sentiment of all our prayers. Shout praises. Give thanks. Not because God needs them but because we need them. On Shabbat morning we offer these words: “Even if our mouths were full of song as the sea, and our tongues full of joy as countless waves, and our lips full of praise as wide as the sky’s expanse…we could never thank You enough, Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors.” Keep giving thanks. Never tire of singing praises to God. Clap along!
“Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof/Because I’m happy/Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth/Because I’m happy.”
Ancient words or contemporary songs, the sentiment must remain the same. Regardless of the century our spirits require gratitude. It is good to fill those cups with fine wine, but it is even better and more important to fill the heart with thanks.
Then there is no choice but to dance and sing: Because I’m happy.