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13 Elul 5763 - September 10, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
A Middos Workshop: Hakoras Hatov

Based on Shiurim of Rav Dovid Siegel

Part III

The first part explained the basic idea of hakoras hatov, the elemental recognition that someone has done me a favor. There is a human tendency to want to refuse to recognize dependency on someone else, which makes us reluctant to recognize that someone else has done us a favor.

Similarly, Bnei Yisroel refused to accept a gift from Hashem to remain on the high level that they achieved at Har Sinai. Even though it was a level they could never achieve on their own, they apparently did not want to feel forever indebted, even to Hashem, for their personal level.

Moshe Rabbenu is a great model of hakoras hatov in his behavior towards Yisro, when he asked him permission to leave to fulfill Hashem's directives, and even towards inanimate objects such as the water and the earth, teaching us that hakoras hatov is incumbent upon us due to the circumstances and is not dependent on the feelings of our benefactor. Also, appreciating parents is an important area of hakoras hatov.


Previously we recounted the midrash that told of Moshe's refusal to leave Yisro without first requesting permission. The midrash adds that in fact, Moshe said, "I cannot." The commentators tell us that he was taking a risk by refusing Hashem, but he felt so obligated--nafsho chayav lo--that he felt no choice. He had no right to leave his lifesaver.

The midrash states that Hashem even nullified Moshe's oath. But even though Moshe was no longer halachically bound to Yisro, his inner sense of obligation compelled him to do so.

Throughout history we find great people who applied Moshe's concept of indebtedness. After the wife of the Alter of Novardok passed away, he offered to marry a simple woman of a different spiritual status than himself. Why did he do so? Wouldn't this result in a much different life than he could have had?

This woman had provided him with food during his time of need. When he became aware of her difficulty in finding a suitable match, he readily offered to serve that need. The Alter felt so indebted to her for her previous kindness that he offered to marry her.

The Sha'agas Aryeh gave his attendant a brochoh for longevity. Although the attendant was simple and not learned, the Sha'agas Aryeh managed to find an appropriate way of showing appreciation. Incidentally, that shamas lived past a hundred with his full faculties.

Closer to our days, HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt'l benefited from a woman who offered her services voluntarily to his yeshiva. Reb Moshe felt so indebted to her that when her children developed a fatal illness, Reb Moshe begged Hashem to cure them. His entreaty was so intense--because the gezeiroh was so inflexible--that another tzaddik attested that he once lost two years of his life when he attempted to reverse that type of decree. Reb Moshe's extreme sense of gratitude made him feel as if he owed this woman everything, for whom no exertion was too much.

Each of us knows individuals who affected our lives. Do we hold them on the plane they deserve to be? Do we even acknowledge that we would not be who we are if not for them?

An odom godol once said that the difference between an oveid Hashem and a regular person is that the oveid Hashem does not forget a favor done to him, but the other person will not forget a wrong done to him. The oveid Hashem understands that when one opens a door to his friend, this friend owes him his life.

It is important to keep things in balance. We should realize that our accomplishments are ours. But at the same time, we must recognize whatever is not ours. We have to assess how much credit we can take for ourselves and how much really belongs to someone else.

Appreciation for Life's Circumstances

From Moshe Rabbenu, the paradigm of hakoras hatov, we learn an even higher level of appreciation. The midrash on parshas Shemos portrays how far Moshe's hakoras hatov went.

When Moshe was sitting by the well in Midyan, he rescued Yisro's daughters from the local shepherds and gave their sheep water. The daughters returned to their home and told Yisro that an Egyptian had drawn water for them and saved them from the shepherds. Yisro directed his daughters to fetch their savior.

We should ask here an obvious question. Why did they call Moshe an Egyptian, when he was surely dressed and behaved like a Jew, not a Mitzri?

The Midrash explains that Yisro's household was in cheirem, deemed outcasts, due to his refusal to accept the local religion. The shepherds found the daughters alone, and they would have thrown them into a pit. When the daughters thanked Moshe for saving them, he replied, "Don't thank me. Thank the Mitzri whom I killed."

The Egyptian that Moshe killed? He gets credit for saving the girls? Apparently so. And that is what Yisro's daughters reported back to him.

To further explain this incident, the midrash continues with an anecdote about an arod, a certain breed of snake that once bit a man. If an arod bites a person, both the person and the snake must run for a source of water. If the person reaches the water first, then he lives, and the arod dies. If the arod gets there first, then it survives, and the person dies. This bitten man reached the water first, and when he got there, he saw a boy drowning. The man jumped in and saved the boy's life. After he brought the boy home, the father thanked him profusely, to which the man replied, "Don't thank me. Thank the arod that bit me." So ends the midrash.

Let's take a broader look at what brought Moshe Rabbenu to be in these particular circumstances. As we know, Moshe was raised in the home of Pharaoh. However, he was destined to lead the Jews out of Egypt and also to marry a convert from Midyan. How will his life lead him to these two vital life courses? Better put, how do we get Moshe out of Pharaoh's house over to Midyan?

He had to be fleeing far away from Egypt. Why would he do such a thing? This could only be if he were running for his life, for committing an Egyptian offense. Now, knowing Moshe's compassion for his people, Hashem arranged for Moshe to pass by an Egyptian mercilessly beating a Jew. Moshe saved the Jew, fled, and Hashem led him to Midyan at exactly the time that Yisro's daughters would be there.

At this point Yisro had already evaluated all the world's religions and rejected them. When Yisro heard the story that Moshe had related to his daughters, he saw the guiding hand that had led Moshe to him. He understood how the dead Egyptian had caused Moshe to end up in his vicinity. And Yisro wanted to marry him off to one of his daughters.

So the Mitzri was the tool for placing Moshe into crucial life circumstances. Now, an arod is a dreadful creature but even it is good if it saves a child's life. Should we reward the arod for its heroism?

No! We should kill it. But we gain here a lesson that sometimes a harmful entity may be beneficial. All experiences in life contribute to goodness.

This does not mean we should write a thank you card to the dead Egyptian or to the snake. It means to thank Hashem for arranging all the events that led to the good.

Developing Broader Hakoras Hatov

We see a striking example of the magnitude of hakoras hatov when we examine the mitzvah of bikkurim.

In the times of the Beis Hamikdash, the inhabitants of Eretz Yisroel would take a sample of their fruits, place them in a basket and bring them to the Kohen in Yerushalayim. Then they would say a lengthy declaration, "Arami oveid ovi . . ." referring to Avrohom or Yaakov Ovinu. Either way, the declaration recounts the whole, comprehensive history beginning from the Jewish people's origins leading up to Hashem bringing His people to their precious Land, followed by our expression of thanks for the fruit. Why this whole oration? Wouldn't a simple "thank You for the fruit" suffice?

Basing himself on Sforno's comments, the Telzer Rosh Yeshiva HaRav Keller shlita explained that for one to have full appreciation of Eretz Yisroel's fruit that he now possesses, he must go back to how he got the fruit. From a seed, of course. Where? In Eretz Yisroel. How did he get to Eretz Yisroel? Because Hashem rescued His people from the furnace of Mitzrayim and brought them to the Promised Land. They developed in Mitzrayim under the most adverse conditions and pleaded with Hashem to release them from Egyptian bondage. Hashem responded and granted them the privilege of settling in the land of their forefathers.

Thus, this simple basket of figs contains the whole history of the Jewish people and their relationship to the Land. Bringing bikkurim presented them with the opportunity to express thanks not just for the fruit, but for everything that led up to it. They recognized the fruit as a culmination of a long chain of favors Hashem had done for them since their inception.

This is the extent of true hakoras hatov: searching far beyond the immediate favor and acknowledging all events that led up to the present thankful situation. Moshe Rabbenu taught Yisro's daughters to appreciate everything that was involved in their rescue by Moshe.

How does all of this relate to us? We too can focus on the chain of events that led up to all the situations we find ourselves in. So much has gone into where and who we are today, starting from when we were born spanning everyone who has benefited us until this day.

A wealthy individual once enrolled in a community institution, where he became a regular attendant. He took a serious interest in the institution and he eventually took a leading role in its development and steered it to great heights.

What brought this man to the institution? A new staff member brought him. From where did he know him? From a previous study partnership where they had learned together before. How had they begun studying together? A concerned rabbi had matched them up. In responding to the situation, the institution's leader expressed gratitude for everyone in the chain: the prominent individual, the staff member, the concerned rabbi and even the generous individual's cousin who had originally directed him to studying with the first rabbi.

We should attempt to develop a similar appreciation for all the events leading up to our appreciated situations. This could, for example, include all the individuals who helped lead us to meeting our spouses, as well as all the details that made our spouses into who they are. When we see the seminary principal or rosh yeshiva who strongly influenced our wife or husband, we should feel a tremendous sense of appreciation towards them.

Acquiring a higher level of hakoras hatov can also improve our relationships. If someone asks me a favor which does not particularly appeal to me, I can think back to how this person has benefited me in the past. With this improved sense of gratitude for all this person did for me, how can I refuse the favor? I must jump to do it.

On the negative side, if I feel hostility towards someone, I can think back through our relationship. Perhaps--as is generally the case--I can recall favors this person granted me. If we think about it honestly, most or all people with whom we have close contact have helped us. We owe them. Reflecting on how indebted we are to others makes it easier to overlook insults or injustices that come our way.

Instilling the midda of hakoras hatov into our hearts will enhance our relationships with others. It will also help us develop true humility, as well as a deep appreciation to Hakodosh Boruch Hu for arranging our life course for our ultimate good.

See Part 1

See Part 2

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