I spent some time this week focusing on the Mussar value of ‘Hakarat hatov’ – recognizing the good. We often reduce it to the expression ‘thank you’ and file it under gratitude. Actually, to be honest, we often say ‘thank you’ and file it under ‘things I do when triggered by something that doesn’t have too much relevance or meaning anymore’. In other words, things I say when I’m in automatic.
There is a foundational value in Judaism of recognizing the good, reframing ourselves to view things positively. We are commanded to choose life, we are also told to do things from within a place of joy and, most obviously, we toast to life. We are cautioned to stay away from the dark negative places both physically and mentally. Finding the darkness within us and others comes too naturally to us because, on a very base level, it keeps us safe. If I expect the worst, then I am prepared for it, whereas if I expect the best, I could easily be blindsided and hurt.
So, in the first steps of recognizing the good, we are taught to say ‘thank you’. But the nuances of thanking someone are huge when we recognize how it opens endless explorations of our perspective.
When I was potty training my kids, each of them reacted differently. One of them chose to completely ignore the potty sitting in the middle of the room and defiantly chose to use the floor right next to it. The message was clear: ‘I can control this, but I will choose where and when’ – message quickly received. Another of my kids explained to me that they know I want them to use the potty but they prefer their diaper (those are the exact words used as they felt they needed to explain to me why this is a doomed venture and I somehow don’t get it). But one of my children thanked me each and every time.
With this child, I would remind him of the potty as clearly as I could. Often, that would take the shape of my saying ‘do you have to pee’ every few minutes and his answering “no, thank you.” It was never just a yes or no answer, it was always followed with a ‘thank you’. I couldn’t tell if I should correct him because I wasn’t sure it was incorrect. He somehow heard my question to him as an invitation, or maybe he heard my question as a consideration of him. I’m not sure, but without doubt his ‘thank you’ made me explore what my question meant. Was I worried about having to clean up a mess next to the potty? Was I worried that he would never train and would somehow be marching down the aisle to his chuppah in a diaper? Was I worried that if he didn’t train by a certain age then I had failed as a mother? Was I worried about him or me?
He gifted me the ‘thank you’ because he heard me inviting him to an action. He heard that I had extended to him with consideration. His ‘thank you’ humbled me and I have never treated gratitude the same way since then.
This week’s parshah, Va’era, has Moses and Aaron in Egypt and the plagues begin. But Moses is not the one to start the plagues, it is Aaron who turns the Nile into blood and it is Aaron who brings frogs from the Nile. We know that when it comes to Torah, it is rare to see agreement in the commentaries, but in this instant there is agreement. Moses cannot harm the Nile, it must be Aaron.
While the Nile represented the instrument of death for the baby boys of Egypt, for Moses alone, it was a place of refuge and safety. The Nile could have upturned the little ark Moses was floating in, but it did not. It kept him safe and brought him to the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter, the woman who would save him. Moses cannot harm the Nile because he must show gratitude to its waters.
But is the Nile a living thing? Must we show gratitude to inanimate objects? Interestingly, Judaism says we must. There was a sage in the Talmud who would wrap his shoes carefully before discarding them. When asked by his students why, he explained that those shoes kept his feet from harm for years and so he will treat them with respect to show his gratitude. Of course, the shoes don’t know…but he does.
There was a rabbi who headed a yeshiva in Jerusalem in the 1980s. His name was Rabbi Yisrael Zeev Gustman. He was the last ‘dayan’ (rabbinical judge) in Vilna before the Holocaust and when he fled, he hid in the forests. Upon establishing his yeshiva after the war, he insisted that he, and only he, be the gardner of the grounds. Some students felt it was not respectful to have him fill that role and he answered, “my life was saved by the shelter of the bushes and the fruit of the trees”. He said that he was expressing gratitude to the forest that sheltered him. The trees will never know…but he will.
So, Jewish environmentalism is not based on the logical argument not to poison the nest we live in. That is an argument of self-interest. Jewish environmentalism sits on the idea of ‘Hakarat hatov’, gratitude. We are forbidden to harm something that has treated us so well, that has fed us and sheltered us and quite literally given us the air we breath. We are commanded to take care of the earth because it is how we say thank you.
And the Talmud takes it even further. There is a verse in the book of Deuteronomy that commands us not to despise the Egyptian because we were a stranger in his land. In other words, before Egypt enslaved us, we were welcomed in and fed during a famine. The Torah tells us we must not hate them, but the Talmud tells us we must never harm them. Now it is not only about how we should feel but it is also about how we act toward them.
Except, are we supposed to simply erase the sufferings and the torture of slavery? Of course not. Human suffering is never to be ignored, but should the pain of it be perpetuated? The Torah tells us to learn from our Egypt experience. Never treat the stranger badly, never turn away someone in need. But our suffering in Egypt ended, we were brought to freedom and the Torah tells us we were paid before we left. In other words, learn what we need to learn from the suffering in order to create a positive future. Carry the lesson forward, not the hatred.
The opportunities to ‘recognize the good’, the moments that slip by us and are then lost, but with a simple thought to gratitude, we could change so much. Maybe the next time a guest thanks us for our hospitality, instead of automatically saying ‘you’re welcome’, we could stop ourselves and sincerely express, ‘thank you for your visit.’