Hakoras Hatov: The Surprising Middah of Winter

We have entered what the Torah calls yemos hageshomim, the rainy season, also known simply as winter. Yet, it is also the season of hakoras hatov, a time for gratitude. In fact, from the very beginning of creation, the rain did not fall unless there was someone to be grateful for its blessing. The Torah (Bereishis 2:5) tells us that “all the trees of the field were not yet on the earth…for Hashem had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil.” Rashi explains the connection between man and rain as responding to the question, “Why didn’t it rain?” The answer is because there was no one to work the land and recognize the beneficence of the rain. Therefore, when man arrived knowing that they were necessary for the world, he prayed for them, they fell, and the trees and the grasses indeed blossomed.”

Thus the rainy season may be seen as an annual opportunity to hone our skills at appreciating our blessings, thanking those who have benefitted us and strengthening our trait of gratitude.

Let us begin our journey with some amazing stories about Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l. The rosh yeshiva was na’eh doresh and na’eh mekayeim, he practiced what he preached. In a fiery mussar shmuess (see Mishnas Rav Aharon 3:250), he thundered that “hakoras hatov is the basis of serving Hashem.” In life, he never forgot a favor from Jew or gentile. One of the gentile kitchen workers in the yeshiva once saved him from a wild dog and Rav Aharon did not cease to thank and praise him for the kindness.

On another occasion, Rav Aharon awoke a bochur in the middle of the night. “I’m so sorry,” Rav Aharon apologized, “but could you please wake up a minyan of boys so we can say Tehillim for Emanuel Lederman of Denver? He is very sick and it is urgent.” The young man protested that it was extremely difficult to wake up that many people who had just fallen asleep. Rav Aharon was unmoved, declaring that “it is impossible to think of comfort. This is a matter of hakoras hatov.”

He went on to explain that during the war years, when an opportunity arose to save 1,200 Jews from the hands of the Germans, Mr. Lederman had been the first to volunteer at 3:00 in the morning. “Isn’t it appropriate that we, too, try to do the same for him?” the rosh yeshiva concluded.

Rav Gedaliah Schorr zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, related that on another occasion, the son of a man who had helped many yeshivos transplant themselves in the United States got into trouble with the law. Rav Aharon ruled that all the yeshivos who had benefitted from him were obligated to use their tzedakah funds to help this man with his legal expenses. Finally, Homer Capehart, a gentile Republican senator from Indiana, was instrumental in obtaining federal funds for Chinuch Atzmai. When the senator appeared in trouble for reelection, Rav Aharon asked Amos Bunim to call all the Orthodox rabbis in Indiana, indicating that they must support Senator Capehart. When word came back that the majority of the rabbis refused, claiming that their allegiance was to the Democrat and liberal parties, the rosh yeshiva picked up the phone himself. He called every single rabbi, explaining that hakoras hatov required their absolute support (see Aharon Sorasky, Aish Hatorah, pages 355-358).

 

What is the source of this great stress upon the middah of hakoras hatov?

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, used to testify that to all of the baalei mussar he knew, someone who evidenced kafuy tovah, lack of gratitude, was not considered to be a human being at all. It was the lowest trait one could imagine.

Rav Reuvein Feinstein (Sefer Hazikaron Be’er Mechokeik, page 355) suggests that the source of one of our only mitzvos de’Oraisa, bentching, is also the middah of hakoras hatov. The Gemara (Brachos 20b) records the complaint of the angels that Hashem is partial to Am Yisroel. Hashem answers that halachically we need not recite Birkas Hamazon unless we are satiated, yet we thank Hashem for the food even if it is only the size of an olive or an egg. Rav Feinstein points out that our gratitude to Hashem for even small amounts of food is what saved us from the complaints of the malachim.

Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zt”l (Ohr Yechezkel, Elul II, page 11) explains that our entire existence on earth is predicated upon the fact that we emulate Hashem in this middah. Just as we know that “ain Hakadosh Boruch Hu mekapei’ach sechar kol berya – G-d does not withhold reward from any creature” (Bava Kamma 38b), even the dogs in Egypt who were silent, so must we be vigilant in our gratitude as well.

Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv zt”l, the Alter of Kelm (Ohr Rashaz, Devorim, page 64) sees another connection between our gratitude and that of the Creator. Chazal (Pesikta 13) teach that “one who denies the kindness of a human being eventually denies the kindness of G-d Himself. The Alter notes that this statement seems counterintuitive. Surely it is easier to be grateful to a human being than to Hashem, since one sees and experiences viscerally the kindness of a human being, but it is sometimes hard to realize and appreciate that something is coming from Hashem. So why should one link these two ungrateful actions? He answers that, in fact, part of the obligation to recognize someone’s kindness is that one can use this to stimulate his gratitude to Hashem. Once a person gets into the excellent habit of expressing gratitude and being appreciative, it will become easier to extend this to Hashem Himself. For this reason, one who does not show appreciation to his fellow man will certainly not do so for His invisible Creator.

The Alter then offers a vehicle for feeling appreciation for virtually everyone we know. He cites the famous Medrash (Vayikra Rabbah 4) that provides a parable. A man is caught drilling a hole in his cabin on a large ship. When he is discovered, the irate captain berates him for his dangerous actions. “But why do you care what I’m doing in the privacy of my room?” the foolish man responds. Of course he is told that he does not live in isolation. He is jeopardizing every life on the boat. The Alter derives an incredible lesson from this Medrash. We know that middah tovah merubah (Sanhedrin 100b).Whatever applies on the negative side is multiplied many times over for the positive. Therefore, if one person can endanger the entire nation by his sins, imagine how much more a person accomplishes by even one positive mitzvah that he fulfills. We should therefore be grateful to every single person we know for whatever good deed he performs, since it could be that deed that saves the entire ship of state.

Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman (Ayeles Hashachar, Shemos, page 5) gives us a wonderful source from the Torah for this concept. Paroh made believe that he did not remember the great service that Yosef had provided for Egypt (Shemos 1:8). Rashi seems to imply that Paroh was an ingrate by conveniently forgetting Yosef’s rescue of his nation. Rav Shteinman raises an interesting issue, which would provide a defense for Paroh’s memory lapse. The Egyptians, following their leader, were worried about the exponential growth of Klal Yisroel. They were afraid of being overtaken or that we would join their enemies. Should Paroh have ignored all these security threats because of his gratitude to one person?

The rosh yeshiva answers that Am Yisroel in fact did nothing wrong. It was Paroh and his people’s paranoia that fueled their empty worries. However, had Paroh and his people felt the proper hakoras hatov to Yosef, they would not have even entertained the possibility of being hurt by us. Therefore, all the suffering and destruction that eventually befell the Egyptians stemmed from their lack of that most basic of human feelings, gratitude to one who has saved your life.

Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky zt”l (Emes L’Yaakov, Shemos, page 245) points out that among Paroh’s advisors, only Yisro was a makir tovah. He taught his daughters to be grateful to Moshe Rabbeinu for having saved them and therefore also was grateful to Am Yisroel for what they had done for Egypt. Iyov, who was silent when he heard of Paroh’s decrees against us, and Bilam, who agreed with them, were each punished accordingly. The lack of hakoras hatov can indeed be devastating, even to the otherwise decent and powerful.

Rav Moshe Scheinerman (Ohel Moshe, Mikdash Vegolus, page 183) shares a poignant story about a survivor of churban Europa. Mr. Shachner used to stand on the corner, watching the sweet schoolchildren boarding their busses to yeshiva. Finally, someone asked him why he was at his post every day, even though none of them were his grandchildren. He answered that for a number of years, he was forced to stand in the ghetto watching the ghastly freight trains carrying the Jews to their deaths in the gas chambers. “When I saw the endless human cargo of men, women and children being transported to their horrific deaths, I thought this was the end of the people of Klal Yisroel. But now,” he wiped away a tear, “when I see Hashem’s blessings in the beautiful children going to learn Torah, I must stand and thank Him for the miracles I see before my very eyes.”

Can we do less? Let us revel in the rain, which irrigates the farms from where we eat, and thank Hashem for the air we breathe and the limitless blessings of our lives. Surprisingly, the yemos hageshamim are our moments in Gan Eden when we, too, can justify the world through our hakoras hatov.