Our Sin of Kafuy Tovah Toward President Trump

Our eternally wise Torah teaches us many middos. Sometimes, the focus is on the positive, illustrating which character traits to embrace and emulate. At other times, it reveals which types of personalities to reject and even to find repugnant.

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l (Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashanah, Maamar 3:1), shared with us that “whoever had the privilege of serving the truly wise knows how they valued the trait of hakoras hatov, gratitude. If they felt that someone was a kafuy tovah, an unappreciative person, they considered him to be barely human.”

Rav Hutner demonstrates various sources for this extreme aversion. We may add that one of the earliest manifestations of this lack of gratitude is the first man himself. When Hashem confronted Adam with his sin, his response was, “The woman You gave me to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I ate” (Bereishis 3:12). Rashi’s famous comment from the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 5b) is that “here Adam exhibited a lack of gratitude” for the gift of his wife Chava.

The Torah Temimah cites the view of Tosafos that Adam, like Klal Yisroel later who complained about the monn, knew very well that he had received a gift, only he did not wish to acknowledge his debt to the Creator for this kindness. The Maharal (Gur Aryeh to Bereishis 2:5) notes that Hashem did not make it rain until Adam arrived upon the sin, appreciated the gift of rain and prayed for its blessing. The Maharal adds that “if Adam would know the importance of precipitation but would not pray in gratitude, it would surely not rain, for then Adam would be a kafuy tovah.”

In any case, we see that this personality flaw has its roots deep in the very beginnings of humanity. In fact, one Medrash (Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer 32b) states that “There is nothing worse before Hashem than an ingrate. Adam was banished from Gan Eden for this sin, and indeed Mishlei admonishes, ‘If one repays good with evil, evil will not depart from his house.’”

The Vilna Gaon comments that “the term kafuy tovah” linguistically stems from the word kofeh, which means to cover up, as in the phrase kofah alav kli, to cover something with a vessel. It is considered a cover-up because the person does not recognize the gift that has been bestowed upon him.

The sixth Gerrer Rebbe, the Pnei Menachem zt”l (Otzar Drashos Umaamarim, page 47) plumbs deeper into the first sin itself. The Gemara (Bava Kamma 16a and Yerushalmi Shabbos 8a) teaches that once every seven years, the spinal column of someone who did not bow at Modim in Shemoneh Esrei turns into a snake. Tosafos and the Tur (Orach Chaim 121) explain that we bow as a snake moves its head (Brachos 12b), and therefore, if we do not exhibit proper thankfulness, it is only appropriate (middah keneged middah) that the medium of that bowing – the spine—turns into a snake. The rebbe reassures us that since middah tovah merubah, the corresponding reward for doing the right thing is always greater than the punishment for the infraction, when we do properly acknowledge Hashem’s beneficence, our reward will be very great. The rebbe was actually a na’eh doresh vena’eh mekayeim – he practiced what he preached. In one of his letters (Otzar Michtavim, page 258, No. 424), the rebbe asks one of his followers to play detective. Apparently, when the rebbe was away from home, someone had anonymously left regards for him from one of his chassidim in England. The rebbe was extremely worried that he would exhibit kefias tovah – lack of gratitude – if he did not thank his visitor. He therefore provided a few clues to his correspondent about the probable identity of his benefactor and requested that the chossid make the connection. Now, imagine, the rebbe had tens of thousands of chassidim constantly seeking his advice and blessings. This person had not left a name, address or telephone number, yet the rebbe was concerned that he not appear ungrateful.

In case one thinks that the problem of being ungrateful is only in the realm of middos tovos – in and of itself a very serious matter – Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (see, for instance, Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah, 2:130, page 214) delivers several rulings based upon the principle that one must avoid being a kafuy tovah. Furthermore, our mortal enemy, Amaleik, learning from his ancestor Eisov (Devorim Rabbah 3:20), demonstrated the worst of this horrible trait. He was actually born because of the kindness of Shaul in sparing his forbearer Agag, yet he displayed no gratitude toward the people of Klal Yisroel (piyut recited on Purim). Some suggest (see, for instance, Ohel Moshe, Purim, page 557) that the parsha of bikkurim, which represents our gratitude to Hashem, comes immediately after Parshas Zachor, exhorting us to destroy Amaleik to remind us not to be like the ingrate Amaleik.

Interestingly, a famous story with one of the earliest Rishonim illustrates the importance of not being a kafuy tovah, even when the benefactor is an inanimate object. The Rif once contracted a certain illness that required his utilizing the services of someone’s private bathhouse. The owner took care of the great posek, nursing him back to health. Eventually, the man had financial setbacks and was forced to sell the bathhouse, which became a factor in a din Torah (lawsuit). Although the Rif had no personal involvement with the new owner, he refused to adjudicate anything to do with the bathhouse, since he had benefitted from its waters.

In relating the story, the author of the Shitah Mekubetzes (Bava Kamma 92b) comments, “Consider, the bathhouse was an inanimate object that certainly had no feelings, but the Rif was afraid to be involved lest he accidentally utter something negative (e.g., ‘it is not really worth that much, since it doesn’t work so well, is shabby, leaks, etc.’). Should we not be so very careful never to be unkind to someone who has done us favors?”

All of which leads us to our president, Donald Trump. Any objective observer must agree that he has been the absolutely best American leader for the people of Israel. It is not just that he commuted the sentence of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin and has kept his promises, such as moving the embassy to Yerushalayim, for which alone we should celebrate his courage and kindness. However, many of his predecessors, even those perceived as being positively disposed to the State of Israel, later reneged on their commitments or yielded to our enemies by becoming irrationally antagonistic. These include, in many ways, Presidents Truman, Johnson and Nixon. This is to say nothing about such presidents as Eisenhower, Clinton and Obama, who were openly hostile and contentious for much of their tenure in the White House.

President Trump and his closest appointees, such as the outgoing Ambassador Haley, have defended our people valiantly and eloquently, as opposed to the past, when we received crumbs at best and were often condemned for defending ourselves against terrorism.

There is an irrefutable source in Chazal for the requirement to display gratitude for this level of presidential support. The Medrash (Yalkut Esther 1056:5) relates that when Esther entered uninvited to King Achashveirosh on the fateful day of Klal Yisroel’s mortal danger, she suddenly lost her ruach hakodesh, divine inspiration. She cried out, “My G-d, my G-d, why have You forsaken me?” (Tehillim 22:1). The Medrash reveals what was happening behind the scenes. “Perhaps I am being punished,” Esther worried, “for I referred to the king as a dog” (ibid., posuk 17). Thereupon she changed the metaphor, referencing Achashveirosh as a lion (ibid.). Another Medrash picks up the narrative: “What exactly was Esther’s sin?” (Medrash Talpiyos, Esther). The answer is that “she was worried that perhaps she had been ungrateful since, after all, Achashveirosh has chosen her as his queen” (see, also, Rav Yosef Epstein, Otzar Ha’igeres, page 47). Indeed, the Sefer Chassidim (No. 185 and 1026) writes that if a gentile did something kind for us, we must add zichro latov, we remember him fondly (apparently when he is alive, or the classic “of blessed memory” after he has passed away). Let us put these teachings into some context. Achashveirosh, as we know, was a full partner with Haman in the plot to destroy Klal Yisroel. Yet, Esther is rightly concerned that she has not paid him the proper respect, since she – and we – have benefitted from his actions. How much more so should we be demonstrating our hakoras hatov to someone who has repeatedly, in the Iran deal, in the United Nations, and, of course, in recognizing Yersushalayim, defended our interests, when so many presidents promised and did not keep their word.

I would humbly suggest that this is the time to thank the president for all he has done for us, to laud him for his devotion to our people and praise him for his steadfast support in the face of incredible opposition. It is the least we can do and our obligation not to be kefuyei tovah but makirei tovah, a people who recognize and are grateful to someone who has been so very kind. I do believe that this will be a kiddush Hashem as well, but it will most certainly be a tikkun for any deficit in this area. May we be zocheh henceforth to receive all our brachos directly from His “Hand that is full, open, holy and generous.”