Last year, not long before Passover was to begin and my thoughts were already on the coming Seders and great drama we would be observing, I happened to be just outside a building when I observed the following small scene unfold before me.
An older gentleman was entering the building when a younger man hurried behind him, looking like he was late for something. The first gentleman held the door open for him. The younger man rushed past, not even acknowledging the first gentleman’s kindness. No sooner had the young man rushed through the doorway than a woman in business attire came through, followed closely behind by a man carrying a small parcel. The first gentleman continued to hold the door open for them. They both said “thank you” as they passed. The first gentleman smiled and said, “I guess it is my turn to be the doorman today.”
At that point another young man entered through the door he was holding open. The young man said “thank you” and then paused to hold the door so the first gentleman could enter the building. The older gentleman smiled, said “thank you,” and entered the building. The young man returned the smile and, as soon as the older gentleman was in the building, released the door.
This entire scene played out in less than twenty seconds. Twenty seconds of a simple situation that occurs millions of times each and every day. And yet it seemed to me to capture something essential to the particular part of the Passover Seder I had been thinking of that morning: Dayeinu. Had God only done for us one thing it would have been enough, but God did so much more.
My Dayeinu thoughts and the scene I’d just witnessed caused me to reflect more deeply about what it means to be grateful. Is it enough to simply say “thank you”?
Jewish teaching and tradition would suggest that genuine gratitude demands a good deal more than a simple “thank you.” Mind you, a “thank you” is better than nothing at all. In the simple scene I’d observed, the first young man who rushed through the doorway almost as if he were entitled to have the door held open for him did not bother to acknowledge the kindness of the stranger making his day easier.
His behavior reminded me of a story the rabbis tell of two angels who flew to earth, each carrying a basket. Wherever a person stood in prayer, the angels paused. Very soon, the basket one of the angels was carrying grew heavy while the basket of the other angel remained nearly empty.
Into the first angel’s basket went prayers of petition – “Please give me this,” “Please, Lord, I want that.”
Into the second angel’s basket went prayers of thanks.
The difference in the baskets was not lost on the angels, who observed that people are always ready to pray for what they want but very few remember to thank God when their prayers are answered. “Perhaps,” they concluded, “that is because they never feel they have enough.”
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People not only never feel they have enough, they often feel they are entitled to have more. Our only mistake is thinking this attitude is a recent one. When we feel we never have enough, or that whatever we have is our due, we do not feel grateful for what we do have. And the ability to feel gratitude is the greatest gift God has bestowed upon us.
King David makes this very point when he exclaims in Psalm 116, “How can I repay God for all His kindness to me?” In this declaration, the Psalmist is saying the greatest goodness granted by God is the ability and capacity to thank Him. More than material things, more than life itself, it is the ability to be grateful for our blessings that makes us human. Do we not acknowledge as much in our daily prayers? Modim anachnu lach she’atah – “We gratefully thank You, for it is You . . .”
This is reinforced at the end of the Modim D’Rabbanan where we say, al she’anachnu modim lach – “for we thank You.”
And what are we thanking God for? For inspiring us to give thanks. That is, for the capacity and ability to declare our hakarat hatov. After all, as Rabbi Eliyahu Dressler taught, our service to God is not for His need but for our own.
We see expression in the Torah of what it means to be grateful when Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, advised Moses: “Why do you sit alone…. You will surely wither away, both you and this people that is with you…. Now hearken unto my voice, I will give you counsel, and God shall be with you” (Shemot 18:14-19).
Had not others taken note of this intolerable situation? Aaron? The Elders? Was Yitro’s advice really required? It was, particularly when we understand the essence of Yitro’s character, his hakarat hatov.
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To fully appreciate this quality of Yitro, we must turn to a conversation between him and his daughters when Moses first arrived in Midian, paying close attention to the word, ve’ayo. “And he said to his daughters ‘ve’ayo’ [and where is he?] – Wherefore have you left this man? Call him, that he may eat bread” (Shemot 2:20).
Why doesn’t the Torah simply tell us that Yitro told his daughters to call Moses? Would the meaning been any different? Yes. And no. Ve’ayo shades the meaning. It transforms Yitro’s query into a rhetorical question, so that its meaning becomes, “How is it possible that the one who just showed you such kindness has been left to remain outside?” Implied is the deeper lesson that when one bestows chesed and kindness upon you, you must respond with an immediate and spontaneous expression of gratitude.
Yitro had hakarat hatov. But what is hakarat hatov?
In truth, it is possible to accept a favor from another in one of three ways. The first would be akin to the young man in my story who rushed through the doorway with a feeling of entitlement. His attitude is, “you give, I take.” He believes that everything and everyone exists for his benefit.
Another way is with an expression of thanks, much like the two people who came through the doorway after the young man. They, at least, acknowledged that an act of kindness had been performed. Still, other than the expression of thanks, they made no gesture to reciprocate the kindness.
Then there is the way personified by the young man who followed those two. Not only did he express his thanks in words, he reached out to hold the door open for the kind, older gentleman. He felt an inner need to respond immediately with words and kindness, an inner desire to express hakarat hatov. The essence of such a person is to give, not take. Even when he receives a kindness, he immediately seeks to reciprocate.
In his commentary to Mishlei 3:3, the Gaon of Vilna makes the distinction between emet and chesed, noting that the recipient of kindness who responds in kind exemplifies emet while the recipient of kindness who responds with more than he has received exemplifies chesed. In this way, the Gaon explains Rahab’s request to the meraglim, “Now, therefore, I pray you, swear unto me by the Lord, since I have dealt kindly [chesed] with you, that you also will deal kindly [chesed] with my father’s house, and give me a true token [emet]” (Joshua 2:12).
For herself, Rahab sought emet, since she herself extended chesed to the meraglim and therefore she had every right to expect them to respond in kind. As for her father’s house, which did not extend itself in any way for the meraglim, she requested chesed so that they too would be saved. Emet expects that chesed will beget chesed.
This captures the essence of Yitro. He could not imagine that someone might be the beneficiary of decency and menschlichkeit and not have the inner need to respond immediately in kind with an expression of appreciation, if not with an act of kindness.
Yitro, then, is the rebbe of hakarat hatov.
Such a posture of hakarat hatov extends beyond relations with others. The Torah indicates that hakarat hatov extends even to inanimate objects.
When the first plague of blood was to strike Mitzrayim, God said to Moshe, “Tell Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand…that they [the waters] may become blood’ ” (Shemot 7:19). Why is Aaron the intermediary? Moshe owed the waters an everlasting expression of hakarat hatov “because the river had protected Moshe when he was cast into it, therefore it was not smitten by him neither at the plague of blood nor at that of frogs” (Rashi 7:19; see also Shemot Rabbah 9:10 and 10:4).
Likewise the plague of kinim. “Reb Tanchum said, God told Moshe: the sand that protected you when you struck the Egyptian could not be struck by you” (Shemot Rabbah 10:7).
These examples make clear that hakarat hatov is not a consequence of the intention or hardship of the giver. Quite the opposite. Hakarat hatov is an obligation on the beneficiary for no other reason than he benefited from an act of kindness.
The weak “explanations” of the entitled – “they wanted to give” or “they derive pleasure from giving” – have no bearing. Hakarat hatov emanates directly from my inner need to respond to all that benefits me. It is for this reason that Chazal took it for granted that one would not toss a rock into a well from which he drank (Baba Kama 92b).
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The need for hakarat hatov is inherent in all of us, as we are all the beneficiaries of blessings. Consider the shoresh hamitzvah of honoring father and mother. The Chinuch views this obligation as the most obvious expression of hakarat hatov:
“…it is fitting for a man to acknowledge and treat with loving-kindness the person who treated him with goodness, and he should not be a scoundrel, an ingrate who turns a cold shoulder – for this is an evil quality, utterly vile before God and before mankind. It is for a person to realize that his father and mother are the cause of his being in the world; hence in very truth it is proper to give them every honor and every benefit that he can.”
Hakarat hatov to one’s father and mother begins at the moment of birth. Certainly as the years progress there are many more reasons for hakarat hatov, but even if there were not, the mere fact that one’s father and mother are “the cause of his being in the world” is reason enough. If hakarat hatov is fundamentally evident in “kibud av va’em” how much more is it evident in the deeply rooted urge to acknowledge and laud the One who is the primary cause of our existence?
God has prepared for us a world of wonder and grace. How should we respond to the blessing of living in it? In Berechot (58a), the Talmud provides insight into how hakarat hatov should animate our presence, as well as the refined character of makir tov:
“What does a gracious guest say? ‘How much the host [ba’al habayit] toiled on my behalf; how much meat he brought before me, how much wine he brought before me, how many loaves he brought before me, and all that he toiled, he toiled but only for me.’ But what does the ungracious guest say? ‘What toil was expended by his host? I ate one slice of bread, one piece of meat; I drank one glass; all of the toil expended by the host was only for his wife and children.’ ”
Consider the implications of this passage. If the host did not expend particular “toil” for the guest, then why is the guest ungracious for simply acknowledging the obvious? If special toil was indeed invested for the guest, why is the gracious guest commended for his observation?
When it comes to hakarat hatov, the focus is not on the host but on the recipient. The gracious guest is moved by what he received, not why or how. The gracious guest says, “I benefited.” Even had the host not toiled, the makir tov responds with gratitude, with an attitude that says, “Look at all he did for me! Dayeinu! Had I only received that, it would have been enough.”
The man and woman who entered the doorway did not say, “There is no reason to thank this man, for he was holding the door open anyway.” They accepted what they received and said thank you. Likewise, the young man who followed them not only accepted what he received with a heart of hakarat hatov but was moved to extend the same courtesy to the older man.
Dayeinu, appearing in the heart of the Haggadah’s text, serves as a bridge between the tannaim – R. Yossi, R. Eliezer, R. Akiva – whose statement regarding the plagues appear directly before Dayeinu, and Rabban Gamliel’s statement about Pesach, matzah and marror, which immediately follows Dayeinu.
Dayeinu is the primary Pesach lesson of hakarat hatov. It teaches us to focus on what we have – and to be grateful – because God, Who owes us nothing, has given us so much. Therefore, when God favors us with His mercy and goodness, we need to immediately express our gratitude to Him.
On Pesach our gratitude takes the form of Dayeinu. We recount fifteen acts of Divine kindness, each of which would have been enough to warrant our hakarat hatov by itself – Dayeinu. But fifteen! Emet expects and even demands that chesed will beget chesed, even though God derived joy by bringing us out of Egypt, dividing the sea, providing for our needs in the wilderness, giving us the Shabbat, bringing us before Mount Sinai, etc. We therefore give our verbal expression of hakarat hatov – Dayeinu!
Ultimately, dayeinu, every taker must become a giver, a giver with pure heart and cheerful spirit. That is hakarat hatov. And our ultimate hakarat hatov response to God is manifested through our fulfillment of His mitzvot.