by Rabbi Berel Wein
One of the basic values of Judaism is hakarat hatov – the gratitude to others for favors and help extended to one. This concept is even embodied in the relationship of a Jew with one’s Creator. Ingratitude towards the Creator Who has granted us life and all of its attendant benefits is reckoned as being a primary sin of attitudes and bad values in Jewish ethical thought.
We find in the Torah that our father Avraham and his descendants were and are held to account for Avraham having said to God: “What are you giving me?” when Avraham entreated God for a child. Part of the rationale for the principle in Jewish life, as articulated in the Ten Commandments itself, of honoring one’s parents is really only an extension of this concept of appreciation and gratitude – again to those who have given us life and in most instances raised us and protected us from misfortune.
And, furthermore, Judaism does not view this debt of gratitude owed as being a one-time event. There is an ever-continuing debt of gratitude owed that does not automatically expire because of changing times and circumstances. And in the eyes of Jewish thought this is even a value and concept that transcends generations.
My children, if they are aware of others’ past favors to me, are also bidden to acknowledge that goodness and to attempt to repay it in kind. There are numerous incidents in the Talmud that point out this intergenerational obligation and attitude of gratitude.
Last week an Arab Israeli here in Israel was arrested for plotting and almost executing a mass murder of Jewish Israelis – civilians whom he did not know and had done him no personal harm. It was revealed that the young daughter of this would-be terrorist and potential murderer had, only three weeks earlier, undergone life saving surgery at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. This surgery was performed gratis of the State of Israel and by an expert group of Jewish medical personnel.
One would have thought that a shred of decency, a whiff of gratitude, would have swayed this admitted plotter to kill innocents, to refrain from his nefarious intents. But, hatred warps all correct logical and emotional response to situations such as this one.
Proud to be a martyr for his understanding of his faith and devoted to his hatred of Jews, there is no room left in his psyche and soul to consider, in the light of gratitude, what his attitude and behavior towards Israeli Jews should be.
American Jews, well meaning and naïve in the extreme, raised fifteen million dollars to purchase from the UN relief organizations the green houses and hothouses of the great Israeli agricultural achievement of Gush Katif on the borders of Hamas’ Gaza. The Hamas-led rioters destroyed this infrastructure completely and willfully on the specious claim that they did not want to be beholden to Jewish generosity.
Needless to say, none of the hothouses or greenhouses has ever been rebuilt five years later. Only complaints and false weeping about being under siege and remaining impoverished emanates from official Gaza. It is difficult to make peace with people who do not have within themselves any sense whatever of the necessary proprietary emotion of gratitude towards others for help rendered to them.
The prophets of Israel long ago lamented the lack of gratitude that Jews exhibited towards their Creator. God says to them in a manner of speaking: “You took the gifts of wealth and life that I granted you and used them to fashion idols and promote evil.” It is not only the idols and evil that God complains about, so to speak. It is the sheer audacious cold hearted ingratitude that drives that behavior and brings down God’s wrath against the people.
The prophet Yeshayahu points out that even in the animal world the domesticated animal recognizes its owner and provider of food and care. But “my people knew not” and thus that ingratitude led to the destruction of the Temple and Jewish exile and dispersion. There is an element of ingratitude involved in the relationship of certain segments of our current society to the temporal State of Israel.
Is it not unseemly to take sustenance and benefits galore from the State and yet curse and revile it at the very same moment? How does that square up with Jewish values and true Torah behavior? A person with a sense of gratitude can feel contented and full with one’s lot in life. The ungrateful ones always feel deprived, frustrated and angry at the world and everyone else. We should all learn to say a proper thank you at correct occasions and to really mean it.