I am writing these words between the aufruf and chasunah of our youngest son. As I am sure is the case for every baal simcha, we are flooded with memories, feelings and emotions. One of these is the hakoras hatov – gratitude – we owe to the Ribono Shel Olam and to so many people who helped bring us to these wonderful moments.
As I was speaking to the men at seudah shlishis, my rebbetzin shared with the women at home a story about her father, Reb Shmaryahu ben Avrohom Abba Soclof, whose yahrtzeit is the 24th of Menachem Av. Many years ago, when he was visiting with us, someone mentioned one of our wonderful members, Dr. Jonathan Paley, an amazing orthodontist, Yomim Noraim baal tefillah and well-known singer (of Besiyata Dishmaya fame) who has since gone on aliyah. My shver heard the name and insisted on being introduced.
“Are you related to Rabbi Paley?” he inquired excitedly.
“Yes, he’s my father.”
My father-in-law persisted, “Did he once work in Maimonides Hospital?”
The good doctor responded, “Why, yes. Did you know him then?”
By now, my shver was in tears. “You must know that he saved my life. In those difficult years of the Great Depression, every Friday I would be told, ‘If you don’t come to work on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Monday.’ Then I began the weekly process of finding a new job, because I would never be mechallel Shabbos. Rabbi Paley had just begun a shomer Shabbos program for hospital workers and he offered me a custodial position. He saved my life, my livelihood, and my shemiras Shabbos.”
My rebbetzin added to her entranced listeners that he took his mop and bucket from room to room with a smile on his face and a song on his lips, knowing that he could feed his family, pay his tuition, and not worry about being mechallel Shabbos, G-d forbid. But decades later, when he had the chance to thank the son of the man who had helped him, he instantly knew that he had to be makir tovah.
His dedication to hakoras hatov is reminiscent of that of many gedolim who never forgot a favor over many decades. For example, Rav Chaim Pinchos Scheinberg felt a profound sense of gratitude to a certain family because they had donated his salary for one year to Rav Dovid Lebowitz, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yisroel Meir Hakohein. Interestingly, the money was not initially designated for Rav Scheinberg, nor raised by him, nor was it originally even to pay for the mashgiach, which he became. Yet, for over sixty years, he continued to show his gratitude to the family in many ways.
For us, the memory of Zaidy’s own exhibition of gratitude resulted in hakoras hatov to him and all others who worked so hard to raise us and make it relatively easier to raise our own children as shomrei Torah umitzvos. For me, this is also an opportunity to reflect upon this amazing middah of hakoras hatov and how important it is to our very lives and relationships with Hashem and the people to whom we owe so much.
My own rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, taught us both through his actions and his maamorim that the absolutely most important middah is hakoras hatov, and conversely, the most detestable one is to be a kofui tovah (an ingrate). He would relate the custom of Rav Simcha Zissel, the Alter of Kelm, to linger outside his home upon returning from Maariv on Friday nights. He would stop to contemplate all the preparations for Shabbos that his rebbetzin had made. He specifically mentioned the beautifully set table and the foods and delicacies that had been arranged. All of this was done so that he would be sure to have shown his hakoras hatov to his wife for all she had done, although she did this each and every week. It was as if each time was fresh and new as the very first time she had made Shabbos.
In Rav Hutner’s later years, just after his rebbetzin’s passing, the doctor who had treated her arrived. The physician was beside himself over his inability to save her life, but the rosh yeshiva pointed to his freshly torn shirt. “You see,” he began softly, “I have just torn kriah and recited the brocha of Dayan Ha’emes. However, you must know that I am tremendously grateful to you for all your efforts for her.” The doctor had never heard such words from the close relative of someone who had just passed away. For the rosh yeshiva, however, this was a personal fulfillment of a maamar he had delivered long ago and carried in his heart every single day.
In Pachad Yitzchok (Rosh Hashanah, maamar 3), Rav Hutner relates that “whoever was privileged to serve true chachomim knows how strongly they felt about the middah of hakoras hatov. If they thought that anyone had a natural tendency to be an ingrate, they concluded that he was literally not a human being.”
Rav Hutner went on to share with us the source of this incredible aversion to people who exhibited the trait of being ungrateful. He quotes the Medrash (cited by Rabbeinu Bachya, Shemos 1:8) which states, “One who denies the chesed done for him by a human being will eventually deny the goodness of Hashem Himself.” He explains that Chazal mean that one who denies and ignores kindness done for him is not just passively avoiding its acknowledgment. He is actively rejecting the power and beneficence of chesed. This is a rejection of the chesed that Hashem has planted in the world as well. He further references the teaching of the Maharal (Gur Aryeh, Bereishis 18:4) about the intricate relationship between Hashem’s chesed and our own acts of kindness. Clearly, the offense of ignoring someone’s chesed is not simply a personality defect, but a sin of cosmic proportions.
Rav Simcha Avrohom Hakohein Sheps, rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaas, similarly declares hakoras hatov to be “yesod haolam,” the foundation of the world” (Simchas HaTorah, page 163).
Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv demonstrated this paramount importance of hakoras hatov at a tragic moment in his life. His daughter, Rebbetzin Leah, who was married to Rav Ezriel Auerbach, son of Rav Shlomo Zalman, had cared for him for many years. When Rebbetzin Leah became mortally ill, Rav Elyashiv visited her at the hospital. “Abba,” she protested, “I would prefer that you sit and learn.” The great masmid and gadol hador responded, “Leah, you are deserving” (quoted by Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel in Sichos Rav Nosson Tzvi, Behaaloscha, pages 136-139).
The lesson for the ages was enormous. He had had made the decision that his hakoras hatov required a hospital visit.
Indeed, after Rav Elyashiv had his open heart surgery late in life, he was no longer attending even family simchos. When the former mayor of Yerushalayim, Rabbi Uri Lapoliansky, arrived with an invitation to his son’s bar mitzvah and a request for a brocha, Rav Elyashiv stated that he will give a brocha but cannot attend. Yet, attend he did, to the horror of the family. Why? His response was that “this man is the head of the Yad Sarah organization. I have been using their bed and their walker. A debt of hakoras hatov must be repaid.” The family was shocked. “But Tatte, you have done more for him and his organization than he can ever repay. He was elected mayor because of you and it is the greatest zechus for them that Rav Elyashiv is using his equipment.” Rav Elyashiv’s comment, as usual, was terse and eloquent: “If he did me a favor, I must return it as well.”
Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz was elaborately hosted by Rav Yaakov Yosef Herman in New York. Later, when Rav Yaakov Yosef visited Kamenitz, Rav Boruch Ber personally prepared his bed. Upon his host’s protests, the famed rosh yeshiva responded, “Can you put on tefillin for me? This is my mitzvah. Please don’t disturb me.”
Nothing can stand in the way of hakoras hatov.
How do we implant this tremendous middah in ourselves, our children and our grandchildren?
Rav Moshe Rosenstein, mashgiach of the Lomza Yeshiva, used to recount how Rav Yisroel Salanter once watched a sunrise with some of his talmidim. He spent a few moments giving thanks to Hashem for the wonderful gift that Hashem gave us of the sun itself.
The Shitah Mekubetzes in Bava Kamma famously recounts the story of the Rif, who refused to participate in a din Torah about a certain bathhouse, because he had once benefitted from its waters. He felt that he could not properly adjudicate a legal issue concerning the property when he “owed it a debt of gratitude.”
This attitude of acknowledging even the chesed of inanimate objects can help us be thankful to human beings by virtue of a kal vachomer.
Rav Yisroel Gustman famously tended his own garden when he moved to Eretz Yisroel because plants had saved his life when Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky had taught him how to survive on mushrooms and other natural growths in the forest. It was obvious that the great gaon was doing this as an extension of his hakoras hatov to the Creator Himself.
As we approach Elul during this difficult year, let us renew our dedication to hakoras hatov. We are boruch Hashem alive, functioning, and with the help of Hashem making simchos. Let us be properly thankful, as Chazal say, for each and every breath and each of the billions of kindnesses that are showered upon us daily. With this, we can hopefully enter a better year, which will be laden with Hashem’s chesed toward all.
The author thanks Rav Shimon Wanunu for his recent comprehensive sefer “Machsheves Hakoras Hatov,” which was extremely helpful in preparing this column.