Sign In Forgot Password

08/27/2020 11:58:29 AM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

Look Out Your Window And Be Thankful For Your Spork

08/27/2020 09:59:23 PM

Rabbi Barry Gelman

I have been thinking about gratitude lately. Mostly because our family is celebrating a simcha this weekend - Ami’s Bar Mitzvah -  and I am incredibly grateful for the many many blessings in my life.  But, I have also been thinking about gratitude because I do not think there is enough of it. 

This is why I have recently added a Hakarat HaTov - Gratitude -  section to my weekly erev Shabbat email. If I want to see more expressions of thanks in the world, then I had better practice what I preach. 

There is so much good being done in the world. That is always the case,  but I believe it is even more so during these challenging times.  Professionals and volunteers from all walks of life have doubled down on their efforts on behalf of their constituents, and yet, we seldom hear expressions of gratitude. 

Why is gratitude so important? Well, for starters, gratitude is a fundamental ingredient of our service of God. We owe thanks to God for our existence and for everything else in the world. We can cultivate gratitude toward God by practicing  gratitude towards others. Only one who can express gratitude to those in our lives will be able to express gratitude to the invisible creator.  

Our tradition has some radical expressions of gratitude, meant, I believe, to strenuously remind us of just how far we have to go to find something worthy of  expressing gratitude for in people. 

Take the commandment in this week’s Torah portion prohibiting hatred of an Egyptian.

לֹא־תְתַעֵ֣ב מִצְרִ֔י כִּי־גֵ֖ר הָיִ֥יתָ בְאַרְצֽוֹ׃ 

You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.

This is strange indeed! It is not as if the Egyptians rolled out the red carpet to us and hosted us in the lap of luxury. Additionally, they themselves ignored the good that Joseph had done for them. But, the Torah teaches - סוף כל סוף - when all is said and done - we did receive “lodging” from the Egyptians as an expression of our gratitude for that, we are warned  - לֹא־תְתַעֵ֣ב מִצְרִ֔י - do not hate an Egyptian.

This is stunning.  It begs the questions. 

Do we look this hard for things to be thankful for in others?  

How far do we really have to go to find reasons to express gratitude?

There is a fascinating Gemara in Masechet Bava Metzia that provides an amazing example of just how far we have to go. The context of the Gemara is a consideration of who is to be considered one’s treacher. The stakes here are very high as one’s teacher is due preferential treatment.  According to one opinion, in order to be considered one’s teacher that person had to have taught the student the majority of their wisdom!  That makes sense. I mean, think about it for a moment. Such a teacher shapes our personality, gives expression to our world view. Such a teacher makes us who we are. Of course such a person is due special treatment and gratitude. 

But, then the Gemara does something rather shocking. The Geamra  records the position of Rabbi Yossi who says that even if one taught a student one mishna - then that person has achieved the level of teacher with all of the requisite privileges.  In fact the Talmd there gives the following example. 

אמר רבא כגון רב סחורה דאסברן זוהמא ליסטרון שמואל קרע מאניה עליה ההוא מרבנן דאסבריה אחד יורד לאמת השחי ואחד פותח כיון

Rava said: For example, Rav Seḥora is my teacher with regard to these matters, as he explained to me the meaning of the term in a mishna (Kelim 13:2) zuhama listeron, a utensil with a spoon on one end and a fork on the other.

Imagine that!  Because Rav Sehora explained to Rav what a “spork” was, he rose to the level of his teacher!

We are being taught something really important here. One is deserving of recognition even if what they did for you was a little thing. Explaining one mishna is not considered a major achievement is pedagogy, yet, it warrants immense gratitude.

We often reserve our gratitude for those people who do great things for us - loan us a large sum of money, find us a job… But, what about when someone sends us a birthday card, makes us dinner, stakes out the garbage or picks up something from the supermarket for us?  Those actions also demand that we express gratitude.

But, our tradition does not stop there. Consider this unbelievable Midrash (Shmot Rabbah 1:32). 

וַתֹּאמַרְןָ אִישׁ מִצְרִי הִצִּילָנוּ מִיַּד הָרֹעִים, וְכִי מִצְרִי הָיָה משֶׁה... מָשָׁל לְאֶחָד שֶׁנְּשָׁכוֹ הֶעָרוֹד וְהָיָה רָץ לִתֵּן רַגְלָיו בְּמַיִם, נְתָנָן לַנָּהָר וְרָאָה תִּינוֹק אֶחָד שֶׁהוּא שׁוֹקֵעַ בַּמַּיִם, וְשָׁלַח יָדוֹ וְהִצִּילוֹ. אָמַר לוֹ הַתִּינוֹק אִילּוּלֵי אַתָּה כְּבָר הָיִיתִי מֵת. אָמַר לוֹ לֹא אֲנִי הִצַּלְתִּיךָ אֶלָּא הֶעָרוֹד שֶׁנְּשָׁכַנִּי וּבָרַחְתִּי הֵימֶנּוּ, הוּא הִצִּילֶךָ. כָּךְ אָמְרוּ בְּנוֹת יִתְרוֹ לְמשֶׁה, יִישַׁר כֹּחֲךָ שֶׁהִצַּלְתָּנוּ מִיַּד הָרוֹעִים, אָמַר לָהֶם משֶׁה אוֹתוֹ מִצְרִי שֶׁהָרַגְתִּי הוּא הִצִּיל אֶתְכֶם, וּלְכָךְ אָמְרוּ לַאֲבִיהֶן אִישׁ מִצְרִי, כְּלוֹמַר מִי גָרַם לָזֶה שֶׁיָּבוֹא אֶצְלֵנוּ, אִישׁ מִצְרִי שֶׁהָרַג.

"And they (Yitro’s daughters) said: An Egyptiansaved us…” Was Moshe an Egyptian?...Moshe can be compared to one bitten by a lizard who ran to place his feet in the water. When he put them in the river he saw a small child drowning, he stretched out his hand and saved him. The child said: Had it not been for you, I would have died . To which the man replied: No, I have not saved you, but the lizard who bit me and from whom I escaped saved you. Similarly, the daughters of Yitro greeted Mshe: Thanks for saving us from the hand of the shepherds. Moshe replied: The Egyptian who I slew, he delivered you (since Moshe only ran away because he killed the Egyptian). They therefore said to their father An Egyptian, meaning the Egytpian whom this man slew caused him to come to us.

This is really something! Even deriving indirect benefit from a negative experience is grounds for expressing gratitude to the source of that event. 

Can you think of an example like that in your life?  This is hard, and in some cases too painful to pull off, but it is instructive in terms of how far we have to go to find reasons to offer gratitude. 

Let’s cultivate Hakarat God, to our family, to our everyone. The key is to look for reasons to be thankful…

Maybe this is why everyday, three times a day, we are obligated to offer thanksgiving to God. What if we do not have something to be thankful for? Impossible! Says our tradition. Before saying the prayer, take a moment and think of something you are thankful for. Try it now.

מודִים אֲנַחְנוּ לָךְ. שָׁאַתָּה הוּא ה' אֱלהֵינוּ וֵאלהֵי אֲבותֵינוּ לְעולָם וָעֶד. צוּר חַיֵּינוּ. מָגֵן יִשְׁעֵנוּ אַתָּה הוּא לְדור וָדור: נודֶה לְּךָ וּנְסַפֵּר תְּהִלָּתֶךָ עַל חַיֵּינוּ הַמְּסוּרִים בְּיָדֶךָ. וְעַל נִשְׁמותֵינוּ הַפְּקוּדות לָךְ. וְעַל נִסֶּיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל יום עִמָּנוּ. וְעַל נִפְלְאותֶיךָ וְטובותֶיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל עֵת. עֶרֶב וָבקֶר וְצָהֳרָיִם: הַטּוב כִּי לא כָלוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ. וְהַמְרַחֵם כִּי לא תַמּוּ חֲסָדֶיךָ. מֵעולָם קִוִּינוּ לָךְ:

We gratefully thank You, for You, O Lord our God, are our fathers' God for all eternity, our Rock, our Shield of salvation generation to generation. We thank You and recount Your praise for our lives. We trust our lives into Your loving hand. Our souls are in Your custody and Your miracles are with us every day and Your wonders and goodness are with us at all times: evening, morning and noon. You are good, for Your mercies never fail us, and the Compassionate One, for Your loving kindness never ceases; forever we have placed our hope in You.

I will close with a sweet story about Hakarat Hatov.

The child prodigy of Vilna Lithuania who would later become the dean of the Netzach Yisrael Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Rav Yisrael Gustman had a small garden outside his office at the Yeshiva, and every day he would go out to work in the garden, watering the plants. The students at the Yeshiva would gaze at this action with curiosity, as to why their great scholarly dean would spend his precious time watering and taking care of plants. 

One day, Rav Gustman noticed his students staring at him as he worked in his garden so he explained to them that his actions were an expression Hakarat Hatov - recognizing and showing gratitude. Here is the story he told.

Prior to war, he was once taking a walk with his teacher, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski , as he would do frequently on Shabbat afternoon. Rav Chaim pointed out to him which vegetation and grasses were edible, this information turned out to be very important to Rav Gustman, enabling him to save his life during his escapes into the forest when the Nazis invaded Vilna. Consequently, Rav Gustman felt that watering the plants was an act of Hakarat Hatov to these various grasses and vegetation that had sustained him during the war. Hence, even during the time of Torah study for the rest of the Yeshiva, the Rosh Yeshiva was performing the Mitzvah of Hakarat Hatov. (See Rashi on Exodus 7:2 for an example of Hakarat Hatov for inanimate objects)


Finding it hard to find a reason to be grateful. Remember this story about Rav Gustman...the reason to give Hakarat Hatov may be just outside our window!

Here is a link to a another nice Hakarat Hatov story

Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781