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29 Av 5763 - August 27, 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 I

The Challenge of Recognizing a Favor

Thankfulness. Gratitude. Appreciation. An array of English words convey a feeling or expression of indebtedness to one who has benefited another. Interestingly, Chazal use a different phrase to describe this concept--hakoras hatov, recognizing the good. Perhaps recognition does not seem like a high level but, as we will see, it is actually the crux of the issue.

HaRav Shlomo Brevda relates that he was once walking down the street with some talmidim. Along the way, some people walking on the same side of the street approached him to say a respectful hello, while some on the other side of the street did not even acknowledge his presence and seemed to consciously avoid noticing him. When one of Rav Brevda's companions pointed this out, the rov explained that he had never done a favor for those on his side of the street, but had done many favors for those walking on the other side. He added that people feel uncomfortable accepting favors from others and are loath to give credit to their benefactor.

We see that true gratitude stems from an honest recognition of the good we have received. Once we have admitted the favor, then we will naturally express our appreciation to the giver.


On the opposite end of the spectrum is ingratitude, or as Chazal describe it kefiras tov, or kefias tovoh. Kefiroh means denial, but what does kefia mean? Kefia means force! If I do not acknowledge the source of goodness I received, I rationalize that I was forced into accepting the favor. If I have been forced, then that frees me of a feeling of indebtedness.

Kefias tovoh traces back a long time, all the way to Odom Horishon. When Hashem asked Odom why he had eaten from the tree, he replied, "The woman You gave me gave it to me." Rashi comments that here he was kofer tovoh, denying good, or ungrateful. Odom was telling Hashem that if He had not given Odom his wife, the sin would not have occurred.

Recall that Chava was given to Odom after he had searched far and wide for a partner, and Hashem saw that it was not good for Odom to be alone. Chava was a precious gift from Hashem, and now Odom was basically blaming his own grave error on Hashem's gift.

Of course, we cannot fathom the lofty level of Odom Horishon and the sublime reasons for his actions. But whatever his motivation was, as we will soon discuss, his response was regarded on his level as a lack of hakoras hatov.

When the Jews were traveling in the desert, they too were guilty of kefias tovoh several times. The Torah recounts that when Bnei Yisroel heard Hashem speaking to them at Har Sinai, they could not bear the intense closeness to Hashem and asked Moshe to be the go-between.

Later in the Torah, Moshe rebuked them for this and accused them of being ungrateful. Chazal say that when they heard Hashem stating, "If the Jewish people could only retain their present level of reverence," they should have begged Hashem to grant them that permanent level. Why Hashem deemed this kefias tovoh will be explained below.

Another instance of ingratitude was concerning the mon, the wonder food that sustained the Jews during their sojourn in the desert. They complained that it was all absorbed into the body, while in fact Hashem had sent the perfect food that produced no waste. This quality allowed them to remain in the camp, saving them a five-mile hike every time they needed to relieve themselves. Like their predecessor Odom Horishon, the Jews took an act of chesed and denied the benefits it granted them, for which they were called kefuyei tovoh bnei kefuyei tovoh, ingrates the children of ingrates.

We can understand why Odom Horishon was considered kofuy tovoh, as well as the Jews for their distaste for the mon. But how did the Jews display ingratitude when they opted, out of fright, not to hear Hashem's voice at Har Sinai?

Tosafos explains that Hashem realized that if they accepted His offer to maintain this high level of yiras Hashem, then they would be indebted to Him. The Jews did not want to carry this overwhelming feeling of indebtedness with them for life and therefore declined Hashem's offer. We can explain that they sought to attain their spiritual heights through their own actions and did not wish to feel forever indebted for the spiritual plateau on which they would be. However, this thought holds true for what one could, in fact, achieve on his own -- but why would one decline a spiritual setting that is beyond his realm of achievement? The only answer is a subtle trace of kefias tovoh, an unwillingness to possess something that I cannot call mine.

The Root of Kefias Tovoh

To reach a better understanding of this concept, let's study the sin of Odom Horishon and its effect. How could a righteous man on such a high spiritual level say to Hashem "The woman You gave me"?

The Ramban comments that Odom defended his actions by telling Hashem, "You gave me an assistant. Since You created her to assist me, I assumed that she would always assist me in a positive way." In essence, Odom Horishon was saying, "You gave me this woman to assist me, so I trusted her." This seems like a justifiable explanation for his statement.

Yet, Chazal, in masechta Avodoh Zora still hold him accountable. Apparently, had he properly appreciated Hashem's wonderful gift, he would not have spoken that way. How could he defend himself by finding fault with Hashem's gift? Chazal reveal here that if one truly values a gift, he could never refer to it in a negative light.

It is conceivable that Odom's fault resulted from the sin of eating from the Eitz Hadaas. HaRav Moshe Shapiro explained the root of that terrible sin. Chazal tell us that the snake convinced Chavah, and consequently Odom as well, that upon eating the fruit they would become like Hashem and would gain the capacity to create worlds. In essence, the snake played upon the human desire to control things outside of themselves and make them a part of themselves. This is the root of ta'avoh--the need to possess what is beyond oneself. It is a feeling that nothing is outside of one's domain.

After Odom ate from the Eitz Hadaas, ta'avoh became part of his inner being. It is interesting to note that Odom's first and basically only offense recorded after the sin of the Eitz Hadaas, is his ingratitude. We can therefore suggest that his newly gained desire for control led him to the doorstep of ingratitude.

As we have explained, ta'avoh comes from a desire to annex that which is beyond my domain. The fullest expression of this is the unwillingness to recognize someone else as the source of my goodness. After Odom received Chavah as a present, he failed to appreciate the Source of his gift. He reasoned, on some plane, that she was rightfully his.

Hakoras hatov demands that one recognize the source of a favor and admit that the credit does not go to himself. In other words, hakoras hatov means taking something that is part of me and giving it to another. In this context, the root of kefias tovoh is the unwillingness to part with a piece of myself. Now that it--the object, experience or feeling--has become mine, I find it difficult to share its credit with someone else.

Even the lofty generation that received the Torah was not totally free from this attitude. The Jewish people were uncomfortable wearing a garment for life that they could not call their own. They found difficulty in identifying their spiritual frame of reference as a gift from Hashem rather than belonging to themselves.

End of Part I

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