A great baal chesed called me the other day and asked for a favor. “Please write an article on hakoras hatov.” he said. “It is a middah severely lacking in our generation.” He ought to know.
But it’s not only the great baalei chesed who sometimes feel that their acts of kindness are not appreciated. Ordinary people, too, feel that the good they do goes unacknowledged. We are all guilty to some degree of failing to appreciate the favors that others do for us. Even when we do grasp the benefits, we don’t express our appreciation as we should.
The Ramban teaches that one of the mitzvos that were given to commemorate Yetzias Mitzrayim is the commandment of petter chamor, redeeming a first-born donkey. That gives rise to the obvious question: What does petter chamor have to do with Yetzias Mitzrayim?
Chazal provide the explanation: “Why are first-born donkeys different than first-born horses, or first-born camels? First, the Torah decreed it so. Second, they helped Am Yisroel during Yetzias Mitzrayim, for there was not a single Jew who did not have 90 Libyan donkeys loaded with the silver and gold of Mitzrayim.” (Bechoros 5b)
In other words, the Torah gave us the mitzvah of petter chamor as a way of expressing thanks to these beasts of burden for the help they afforded Klal Yisroel during the exodus from Mitzrayim. A bechor of a chamor attains the kedusha of a cheftza shel mitzvah because two thousand years ago, beheimos that had no bechira were used to transport Jewish possessions out of slavery.
The chamor is not the only animal to which we express appreciation for its conduct at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim. The dog also gets its due. The posuk (Shemos 22:30) states that meat which is unfit for consumption should be thrown to the dogs. Rashi, commenting on this posuk, explains that the Torah specifies to give the meat to dogs as a reward for not barking at the Jews when they left Egypt. Dogs are thus forever remembered for their momentary benevolence centuries ago.
Another lesson of hakoras hatov is gleaned from the fact that Aharon performed the first three makkos of dom, tzefardayah and kinim. Moshe couldn’t turn the Nile’s water into blood because the Nile protected him when his mother cast him there, following his premature birth. For the same reason, he couldn’t strike the water to bring about the makkah of tzefardayah. Aharon, not Moshe, struck the dirt in order to bring about the makkah of kinim, because when Moshe smote the Egyptian and hid the body in the sand, the sand prevented that act from being discovered.
The notion that hakoras hatov obliges one to feel and show gratitude to inanimate objects is not natural to our way of thinking. It seems quite extraordinary that we are commanded to mark our historic indebtedness to Libyan donkeys of centuries ago by performing a token of gratitude to their descendants through peter chamor.
That is because most of us view hakoras hatov as belonging in the domain of bein odom lachaveiro, applicable from one person to another: You did me a favor, and I become obligated to thank you.
However, from these examples brought in the parshiyos of Yetzias Mitzrayim, we are introduced to a deeper dimension of the obligation of hakoras hatov. Showing gratitude is not just a social obligation and a nice thing to do. Gratefulness is supposed to be an integral part of our personalities. Whether it was water or dirt or an animal from which we derived benefit so long ago, as grandchildren of those yotzei Mitzrayim, we are duty bound to acknowledge that kindness.
The way we act towards others impacts our souls and proclaims what kind of people we are. If we are cognizant and appreciative of others’ assistance, we prove ourselves worthy of Divine blessing. But if we are arrogant and behave as if we are totally self-sufficient, we will find out the hard way just how needy and dependent we really are.
G-d created human beings in a way that we cannot succeed if we are only for ourselves; it is only as a community and as part of a group that we can endure. From the time we care born until the very end, we can only survive if we are connected to other people. As infants, we need everything to be done for us. Even as we grow and become more independent, most everything that we require for our daily existence is provided by others.
Arrogant, unappreciative people refuse to recognize that as great as they are, without the contributions of others, they would be hungry, dirty, unclothed, unloved, homeless, illiterate and without much to live for. Everything that we have and everything that we know is only because someone took the trouble to teach us and equip us with the essentials of life and good health.
There really is no way one can be totally independent and live a meaningful life.
In order to maintain our humility and menchlichkeit, the Torah gives us many mitzvos to ingrain into our psyches the awareness of this world’s abundant blessings and the goodness Hashem showers us with.
Some people cannot muster up any level of hakoras hatov because they refuse to feel indebted to others. They would rather remain lonely and sorely lacking than be faced with acknowledging that someone helped them. They don’t want to be obligated to anyone. They don’t want to owe anyone any favors. Such people can be particularly ungrateful and may choose to repay kindness with bitterness and acrimony. They create distance between themselves and the person who did them a favor in order not to have to acknowledge that kindness.
That is not the Jewish way. We have to get into the habit of recognizing the untold benefits we enjoy thanks to the kindness of other people. We need to recognize that were it not for other people, our own lives would be much darker and poorer. Arousing in ourselves a sense of gratefulness for the good we received from others trains us to realize the unceasing kindness we receive from the ultimate Giver.
Only by recognizing the existence of so much tov in our lives can we attain the middah of hakoras hatov, deep gratitude for that boundless flow of blessing.
Everyone needs to feel appreciated; it is a basic human need. It may be that we were created this way so that we should benefit others. In order to be appreciated, we have to demonstrate our value to those around us. We need to give them a reason for them to appreciate us.
It follows that when we express our thanks to others, we are filling a vital need that contributes to their own well-being. At the same time, with our gracious words of thanks, we are repaying their action toward us.
Not surprisingly, studies have shown that grateful people are also happier, more helpful, forgiving, and less depressed.
It is so easy to do; we simply have to be aware of the opportunities. This is why the Torah mentions it repeatedly, so that it becomes ingrained and second nature.
If you are blessed by the greatest Giver of all to grow and mature, you gain many benefits, one of them being that you can become friendly with your rabbeim and teachers. Mr. Avi Shulman was my rebbi in first grade. I am indebted to him for so many things. I am thankful that way back then, he taught me to read and write Aleph Bais and gave me a geshmak in being a Yid. He taught us the basics of davening from the siddur and learning Chumash, the beauty of Shabbos and Yom Tov, as well as how to play well with others.
And he has taught me much more since I left his class. One of his greatest attributes is the way he expresses appreciation to people. So often I have received little notes from him saying thank you for the smallest things I did. Such notes are so rare in our world and always bring a smile to my face, as I’m sure they do to many others. And every time I get a note from him, I say to myself that I should really learn from him and dash off similar letters, but since my middos are not as refined as his, I rarely do.
Being thankful is so important, that “thank you” are the first words we utter as we wake up each day. We say “Modeh Ani,” thank You Hashem. Thank You for returning my soul to me, for waking me, for giving me a new day, for giving me a new lease on life, for giving me a new chance to excel, to do good and to be good. And as we begin our day, we thank Hashem every step of the way; for making us the way he did, for not making us slaves, for dressing us, for opening our eyes, for granting us intelligence and strength.
Beginning the day recognizing that we have so much to be thankful for helps us see the good in everything. We see the chesed in din, the rachamim in chayim and thus all that transpires throughout the day is seen in a different perspective. This transforms the way we experience that day’s challenges and frustrations.
Ingrates are not only lacking an important quality of good character; they are missing a fundamental prerequisite of avodas Hashem. Without recognition of the endless, undeserved stream of kindness we receive from Him, one cannot come close to the Divine or even aspire to any level of ahavas Hashem.
As we tell the tales of the makkos, let us learn the lessons implied here and resolve to be more thankful to those around us whose affection, consideration, courtesy, decency, goodness, graciousness, thoughtfulness, tolerance, understanding, warmth and unselfishness grace and brighten our day. Let us learn to behave toward others in the same way.
Let us learn how to receive and how to give and we will all be making the world a better place, helping us merit the yetziah m’golus b’meheirah.
© 2007 Yated Neeman.