Hakarat HaTov: Expressing Appreciation”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Matot, we read of G-d’s command to Moses to avenge the Children of Israel against the Midianite nation.

What was the reason for this Divine call to action?

In Numbers 25:1-9, we read of the act of harlotry committed by Zimri, the son of Salu, a Simeonite prince and Cozbi, the daughter of Tzur, a Midianite princess. It is the zealous Pinchas who puts an end to the harlotry by spearing both of the perpetrators to death in front of the people.

In Numbers 31:2, G-d instructs Moses, saying, נְקֹם נִקְמַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֵת הַמִּדְיָנִים, Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites. Rashi explains that even though the Moabites also caused the Israelites to sin, G-d did not ask that they be avenged, because the Midianite women were the main seducers and the ones who caused the Israelites to worship the idol of Pe’or. They even sent one of their princesses to lead the debauchery.

When the battle with the Midianites was discussed in last year’s Torah message (Matot 5773-2013), we emphasized the role of Pinchas in leading the battle. This year’s message, however, elaborates on an important lesson that may be gleaned from the details of this battle.

The commentators are puzzled by the fact that despite G-d’s direct request that Moses personally avenge the Children of Israel against the Midianites, we find that Moses is not involved in the battle. Instead, Scripture (Numbers 31:6), reports that Moses mobilizes one thousand soldiers from each tribe and that Pinchas, the son of Elazar the Cohen, leads the people into battle.

The Da’at Z’kenim explains that, despite the fact that G-d tells Moses to avenge the Midianites, Moses felt that because he grew up in Midian it would be inappropriate for him to battle with them, since the Midianites had done him so many kindnesses after he fled Egypt as a young man. As the popular aphorism advises, “The well from which you draw water should not be polluted with dirt.”

The practice of הַכָּרַת הַטּוֹב  Hakarat HaTov, of expressing thankfulness and appreciation for a kindness rendered, is a significant value in Jewish life. It is a theme that repeats itself throughout the Torah. Already in the story of Egypt, we learn (Exodus 1:8) וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם, that a new king rose over Egypt who did not recognize that Joseph had saved both the Egyptian people and the world from starvation and from likely total destruction.

Similarly, we learn that Moses already practiced Hakarat HaTov early in his life. In Exodus 7:19, G-d says to Moses, to say to Aaron, “take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt…and they shall become blood.” Explains Rashi, because the waters protected the infant, Moses, when he was in the bulrushes, both of the first two plagues, blood and frogs, were performed by Aaron, who struck the waters instead of Moses. Similarly, it is Aaron, in Exodus 8:12, who is instructed to strike the dust of the land, so that the dust may become lice throughout the land of Egypt. The dust had protected Moses from punishment, when the earth hid the body of the Egyptian whom Moses had killed.

Rabbi Yonason Sacks questions the reason for being thankful to the water and earth. Both the water and the earth could hardly make a conscious effort to help Moses. Inanimate objects could not possibly understand or benefit from appreciation, and therefore, gratitude is not something that they require. Rabbi Sacks therefore suggests that instead of assessing the effort made by the one who committed the act of kindness, one should instead adopt the position of the recipient of the act, and look at how much they benefitted.  Moses’ enormous sense of gratitude came from having derived benefit from the water and dirt.

The Torah also notes (Exodus 4:18), that before leaving Midian, after being instructed by G-d to go back to Egypt to save the Jewish people, Moses felt it imperative to ask permission from his father-in-law, Jethro, to leave.

It is no coincidence that the Torah (Deuteronomy 23:4) prohibits the two nations of Ammon and Moab from marrying into the Jewish people. These two nations failed to show proper gratitude and appreciation to the Jewish people. After all, it was in the merit of Abraham that their ancestors, Lot and his two daughters, were saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Ammon and Moab owe their entire existence to Abraham and to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, they refused to allow the Jewish people to pass through their land when they were on their way to Israel, even refusing to give the Israelites any bread or water. Such heartless people can never marry into the Jewish people.

The Talmud in Brachot 7b, declares that it was the matriarch Leah, who was the first person to express gratitude to G-d. Through prophecy, she understood that the four matriarchs would ultimately give birth to twelve tribes and, and that she was entitled to only three of the twelve children. So when her fourth child was born, she calls him, Judah (Genesis 29:35), declaring, “This time, I shall thank G-d,” The rabbis explain that of course she was grateful when her first three children were born, but once she received more than her fair share, she was even more grateful, and named the child, Judah. Now, whenever she would encounter the child, she would recall the deep gratitude that she owes G-d at all times, and not only immediately after the child is born. There are many wonderful tales of great rabbis and leaders who expressed uncommon gratitude to G-d and to humankind.

The Chasidic leader, Rabbi Alexander Ziskind, wrote in his last will and testament, that every Sabbath eve, right before the Sabbath, he would express gratitude to the Al-mighty for the many gifts that G-d had bestowed upon him. When he would put on his beautiful Sabbath clothes, he would acknowledge how truly undeserving he was of the beautiful clothes. He further acknowledged that there are so many more righteous people than he, who do not have special clothes for Shabbat. Rabbi Ziskind would also thank G-d for his weekday clothes, and in the winter for his warm clothes, recognizing how impoverished he would be if he would not have proper clothing.

It is told that the Chofetz Chaim, was forever expressing his gratitude to the bathhouse attendant, who saved his life after he had passed out in the bath.

It is related that Rabbi Elazar Shach and many other great contemporary rabbis were meticulous about thanking everyone, even those who did a slight favor for them.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein , would lean over from the passenger seat in the car to thank the person who collected the tolls at the tollbooth.

Rabbi Eliyahu Lapian made a point of expressing thanks to everyone, even if he paid for their services, such as a bus driver, shoemaker, or grocer. Rabbi Lapian was often seen cleaning the bench in his yeshiva. When a student offered to clean the bench for him, he would say, “No, thank you. I want to clean this bench myself, since I owe the bench Hakarat HaTov. Each morning this bench helps me fold my talit. It makes sure that my talit does not drag on the floor while I am folding it.”

Some of you may know that I suffered a knee accident in early May, falling down a flight of stairs and rupturing the tendon to the quadriceps (thigh) muscle, requiring an operation. Thank G-d, I am recuperating well, and no longer need to walk with crutches, but I still wear a full length brace on my left leg.

You can hardly imagine the joy that being relieved of using the crutches brought me. I was finally able to use my hands. I am now starting to bend my knee. Last week, for the first time, I walked without a brace. Who would ever believe the sheer elation that these actions would bring me–-actions that we consider “second-nature.” No longer will I take for granted the morning blessing that is recited for G-d Who makes firm the footsteps of man.

Clearly, it should not take a calamity for each of us to appreciate that even the smallest actions are a gift from the Al-mighty. Every breath, every blink of the eye! It is for that reason that we need to thank the Al-mighty for everything that we have, at every opportunity that we can.

If Moses was able to express his gratitude to the inanimate sea and the earth, how much more must we express our gratitude to other human beings for their kindnesses, and to the Al-mighty  G-d, of course!

May you be blessed.

The Fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Weeks” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha b’Av that will be observed on Monday night and Tuesday, August 4th and 5th.

Have a meaningful fast.