What is included in the obligation of hakoras hatov [to feel gratitude]? What makes the moral obligation of gratitude so elementary? Must we have a sense of gratitude only towards people who meant to benefit us, or does it also obligate the recipient of unintentional benefits? And what form does the obligation of gratitude take when directed towards the inanimate? At times, moral indebtedness may seem too heavy to bear. Can one decide to forgo all favors to escape all moral debt? And can that approach be directed towards the Creator? Ingratitude, it seems, is the root to all evil. Why is that?
Of this, and more, in the following article.
Gratitude to the Inanimate
In this week’s parashah we find Moshe receiving direct orders to perform the plagues: “The Lord said to Moshe, “Say to Aharon, ‘Take your staff and stretch forth your hand over the waters of Egypt…” (Shemos 7:19). Rashi (ibid) quotes Midrash Tanchuma explaining why for the first three plagues Moshe was instructed to order Aharon to raise his staff and smite the Nile and the earth, while for the rest of the plagues Moshe himself was the designated emissary: “Since the Nile protected Moshe when he was cast into it, it was not smitten by him, neither with blood nor with frogs, but was smitten by Aaron.” Indeed, it is improper for one who benefited from something to bring about a plague that will ruin those exact things – the Nile, a life-giving water source, would turn to a river of death and blood, and the good earth – from a source of plenty and plants to mounds of lice.
This differentiation was meant to instill in us the message that gratitude must be directed towards anything from which we benefited, even if it is an inanimate object.
“A Well from Which You Drank, Cast Not A Stone into It.”
This proverb appears in Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 22:4. Its source is debated in the Gemara (Bave Kama 92b):
Rave said to Raba bar Mari: From where is this matter derived whereby people say: If there is a well that you drank from, do not throw a stone into it? Raba bar Mari said to him that the source is as it is written: “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land” (Devarim 23:8). Since you dwelled in their lands, you may not cause them any harm.
According to the Maharsha (ibid) we learn here of a difference between the nations of Amon and Moav versus Egypt. All three possess the negative traits of ingratitude – Amon and Moav comfortably forgot Avraham Avinu’s efforts to save their forefather Lot from war when his descendants stood at the threshold of the promised Land. Not only did they fail to greet their relatives with food and drink, they hired Balaam to curse them. Egypt, too, forgot Yosef’s ingenious advice and work that made Egypt a world power, enslaving and tormenting his descendants. However, since the Jewish people resided in Egypt and enjoyed its bounty, Egyptians cannot be forever abhorred — after three generations, an Egyptian convert is a full-fledged member of the Jewish nation. The males of Amon and Moav, though, since we bear them no debt of gratitude, are forever barred from entering the Jewish nation.
Here we learn the basics of gratitude – we must be grateful even to our tormentor, if we derived benefit from him, small and unintentional as it may seem. Even if rightfully loathed, detested and despised, we may not abhor him entirely. We must never forget a kindness we received.
Gratitude to the inanimate may seem purposeless – what does the inanimate have to gain from my gratitude? And why are we obligated to show gratitude to a nation that tortured and killed our people mercilessly if the only kindness they showed us, allowing us to live on their land, was for their own benefit — to save themself from famine? And why is gratitude to inanimate derived from the obligation to show gratitude to the (in)human nation of Egypt?
Gratitude – Not Debt
The Meiri (Bave Kama 92b) allows for a closer examination of the concept of gratitude. He explains that gratitude, or hakaras hatov, is not a debt one is obligated to pay back after receiving a kindness. It is the moral obligation of acknowledging having received something, no matter what the source of that kindness was – inanimate, cruel or humane. The intention, too, is of no importance – what is important is one’s own personal experience – one who derived pleasure from someone, or something: must be grateful for it.
Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu, volume III p.98) explains that one with a desire to do kindness has an inherent desire to act in kind to something that showed him kindness. When one refrains from showing gratitude, and in the case of the inanimate – ruins it, he is directly ruining his own inborn trait of gratitude. Ruination of this trait, which as we will see later is a fundamentally Jewish concept, will eventually lead to the collapse of all moral and Jewish values. As we find in Rabbenu Bachye (Shemos 1:8) who quotes the Midrash: “One who denies his friend’s kindness will eventually deny his Creator’s kindness.”
Don’t do Me Any Favors
Gratitude, to many, seems like a burdensome debt, leading people to the “don’t-do-me-any-favors” mindset. The rationale behind it claims that if we never receive anything from anyone, we’ll never be indebted to anyone. Some even take this a step further – perhaps it is better to refrain from receiving too much from the Creator so as to minimize the sin of ingratitude?
Receiving gifts from humans, though, is entirely different from receiving gifts from the Creator.
The Yerushalmi (Kiddushin chapter 4, halacha 12) writes: “One will be brought to judgment for everything he saw in the world and did not partake from.” The Pnei Moshe (ibid) explains that Hashem created the world specifically for human pleasure. One who saw a facet in the world that was created for his (permitted) pleasure and decided not to partake of it, expresses his lack of appreciation for Hashem’s creation. And for that, one will be brought to judgement.
The Gemara (Avoda Zara 5a) writes in respect with receiving gifts from Hashem:
The Sages taught with regard to the verse: “Who would give that they had such a heart as this always, to fear Me, and keep all My commandments, that it might be good for them, and with their children forever” (Deuteronomy 5:26). At a later stage, Moshe said to the Jewish people: ‘Ingrates, children of ingrates! When the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to the Jewish people: “Who would give that they had such a heart as this always,” they should have said: ‘You should give us a heart to fear You.’’
Why were the Jewish people considered ingrates for forfeiting the opportunity to receive Fear of Heaven as a gift? Perhaps they were unwise in refraining from asking for yiras Shomayim but why ungrateful? The Tosefos explain that the ungratefulness displayed here was in refraining from asking – one who abstains from asking his friend for something for fear of feeling indebted to him is an ingrate of the highest degree.
Had gratitude been a form of debt, this would have seemed strange. However, once we have established that gratitude is a character trait which we are obligated to cultivate within ourselves, refraining from being on the receiving end for fear of the obligation of gratitude is indeed a loss of the opportunity to cultivate that attribute. Ungrateful, indeed.
Tana D’vey Eliyahu (Eliyahu Raba 9) writes that it is a bad sign for one who feels disrelish for his good life in this world. He adds a parable to illustrate the message:
A king who invited his servant to dine at his table for one day is grateful to his king for one day’s sustenance. If he was invited for two days, his gratitude is even deeper.
A servant who was invited for 30 days’ meals, and after 15 days informs the king that he no longer wishes to eat with him is terribly ungrateful.
Similarly, one who tells Hashem that he has enjoyed enough in his life and no longer wants to receive gifts, displays horrible ingratitude. A Jew’s mission is to derive pleasure from everything G-d gives him, acknowledge it and praise Hashem for everything. Indeed, our very name, Yehudi [Jew] indicates this mission — the word Yehudi shares the root with the word Hodaya – acknowledgment and gratitude. Abstinence is not a Jewish concept, but rather one should eat, enjoy – take in the world in the proper fashion and acknowledge its Source, and thank Him for everything. Jews are obligated to even thank Hashem for the opportunity to express that gratefulness. In the Modim D’rabonon prayer we end the blessing “Al sheacnachnu modim lach, Baruch Keil Ha’hodaos – we are grateful for the privilege of thankfully acknowledging You. Blessed is G-d to whom thanksgiving is benefitting.” The opportunity to thank Hashem is the ultimate goodness, and for that we offer thanks as well.
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Considering the above, it seems that one who refrains from being on the receiving end of another’s kindness so as not to be indebted to him is the epitome of ungratefulness. However, we do find in the Gemara an approach that sanctifies those who refrain from receiving free gifts (Brachos 10b):
Abaye, and some say Rabbi Yitzchak, said: “A great man who seeks to enjoy the contributions of those who seek to honor him may enjoy those gifts, as Elisha enjoyed gifts given him by the woman from Shunem, among others. And one who does not seek to enjoy these gifts should not enjoy them, as was the practice of the prophet Shmuel from Rama, who would not accept gifts from anyone at all. From where do we know that this was Shmuel’s custom? As it is stated: ‘And he returned to Rama, for there was his house, and there he judged Yisroel, and he built an altar to the Lord’ (Shmuel I 7:17). And similarly, Rabbi Yocḥanan said: Every place where Shmuel went, his house was with him, so he would have everything that he needed and not be forced to benefit from public contributions. One may opt to conduct himself in accordance with either of these paths.”
One who refrains from receiving gifts from others because he does not wish to acknowledge their gift is an ingrate — however one who turns down free gifts because he knows that his gratitude will indebt him in a way that will conflict with his other obligations may certainly do so. Shmuel was a judge, and had he received kindnesses from others he would not have been able to judge them unbiasedly. Therefore, he never took anything from others.
I heard of a contemporary example for this from my teacher, Rabbi Luxenberg Shlita. He recounted that ever since Rav Shach accepted his position of public leadership, he did his best not to receive kindnesses from others, precisely because he knew those people may later ask him to do things which might interfere with his public obligations.
Refraining from Receiving Kindnesses
Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler writes (Michtav M’Eliyahu, volume II p222): “There are those who don’t want to receive from their friends out of evilness of their hearts: because they don’t want to be indebted with gratitude towards them. And in truth, it is proper to behave like this with the wicked, not to receive kindness from them, so as not to be indebted to them and then flatter them. This too, was Avraham Avinu’s approach when he returned the loot after the war with the kings: “And Avraham said to the king of Sodom, “I raise my hand … Neither from a thread to a shoe strap, nor will I take from whatever is yours, that you should not say, ‘I have made Avram wealthy’” (Bereshis 14:23).
One who does not want to receive kindness from someone so as not to be indebted towards him is proper behavior only regarding a wicked person, to whom it is improper to be beholden. However, to righteous people and, even more so – to Hashem – this kind of approach is the epitome of ungratefulness. Concerning Hashem we must come to the realization that there is no possibility of even attempting to properly express gratefulness for all of His kindnesses as we say in the prayer of Nishmas every Shabbos morning “if our mouths would be filled with singing…we would still be unable to thank You sufficiently for even one of the thousand, million billion times You have done favors, miracles and wonders to our forefathers and us… therefore it is the duty of all creatures, before you Hashem, our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers to thank, laud, praise, glorify, exalt, adore, render triumphant, bless, raise high, and sing praises – even beyond all expressions of the songs and praises of David…”.
Indeed, the final purpose in creation will be realized when the reciprocal nature of the giver and receiver comes to fore, when it is no longer a shame to be on the receiving end with the full realization of Chazal’s saying: “More than the wealthy man does with the poor, the poor man does with the wealthy” (Vayikra Raba 34:8).
Acknowledgement of Kindness
Rav Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu, volume I, p.46) expounds on the nature of gratitude: “What is gratitude and thankfulness? Where lies their source in the human psyche? And where does ingratitude stem from, a trait from which humanity suffers?
“The “giver” type feels in his heart a distaste for free gifts — his only desire is to do good and to give to others. Therefore, when given something he will reflexively wish to pay back for what he received. And if he is unable to do so, his heart will be weighed upon with debt.”
“But the “taker” type wants everything for himself, whether by theft, deception or gift and in his heart, he will feel that the world is his and open for his taking. When he receives something, he will never feel the need to repay anything at all. He has no recollection of having received at all.”
“As a rule, we may say that gratitude is a byproduct of the “giving” force, while ingratitude is a result of the drive to take.”
Appreciation of a Non-Jewish Daughter in Law
Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein was presented with an interesting question (Chishukei Chemed, Beitza 21b): Yaakov had several sons, all save one were G-d fearing, upright Jews. However, one of his sons left the fold and married a non-Jewish wife. The parents and brothers cut off all contact with him.
One of the brothers contracted a kidney disease that necessitated a kidney transplant. None of the brothers’ kidneys were a match. When the excommuned brother heard about his brother’s illness, his non-Jewish wife encouraged him to get checked out. Of all his brothers, only the excommuned brother’s kidney was a match. His wife encouraged him to give his brother his kidney and with it – another chance at life.
Now, both brothers were together in the same hospital room – the righteous brother now carrying his wicked brother’s kidney. What are the parents to do? Should they thank the wicked brother and his non-Jewish wife who encouraged him to donate, or is it improper to thank a couple whose very existence brings fury to the world? On the other hand, how can one not acknowledge such a gift?
Rav Zilberstein answered that acknowledging kindness is not restricted to Jews. Yosef Hatzaddik showed kindness to the Egyptian priests and allowed them to keep their land because they were kind to him and saved his life when Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him. Similarly, Moshe Rabbenu did not fight in the war with the Midianites as he carried a debt of gratitude towards the Midianites who provided him refuge when he escaped to their land. Hence, there is a moral obligation to express gratitude towards the wayward son and his wife.
In addition, ignoring the wife may result in chilul Hashem as she might say that Jews are ungrateful people.
Therefore, the father should say to his son, “You have merited saving a Jewish life which has great reward. Therefore, we pray that in merit of this mitzva you will be granted additional merit to repent. Also we hope your wife, who encouraged you to go ahead and do this kindness, will attach herself to the attributes of chessed [love-kindness] like Ruth the righteous convert and join our nation, earning the same reward that Ruth, Mother of the Mashiach, earned.”
All service of Hashem is based upon the moral obligation of gratitude. One with refined character traits experiences feelings of gratitude towards everything, while a corrupt person does not appreciate anything. We are obligated to deepen the positive feelings of gratitude and uproot all remnants of ungratefulness from our moral psyche.
Since gratitude is not a debt that needs to be repaid but a character trait that requires honing and refinement, gratitude is not limited only to humans but directed towards the inanimate as well. From this stems the prohibition to discard foodstuffs, or waste — we must ingrain in ourselves an appreciation of anything that may benefit us in any way.
The same goes for humans, whether the resulting kindness was intentional or not. We are even obligated to refrain from totally abhorring them the Egyptians, who tortured our nation for hundreds of years, since we derived benefit from their land,.
A corrupt person feels everything belongs to him, and that which is not his own – is merely not yet. He owes nothing to anyone, and as the famous saying goes – “nothing is more comfortable than a clean conscience.” This is illustrated clearly in Lavan’s argument with Yaakov as it appears in Bereshis (31:43) “The daughters are my daughters, and the sons are my sons, and the animals are my animals, and all that you see is mine.” In Lavan’s eyes, everything is his. He knows no other way. This is the polar opposite of everything a Jew strives for, and we must do everything to distance ourselves from this character trait.