Shiur #16b: Two Aspects of Gratitude

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Shiur #16b: Two Aspects of Gratitude

 

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

 

The Rabbis taught: "'Who can assure that this heart should remain theirs [to fear Me and observe My commandments for all time]?' (Devarim 5:26).  Moshe called Israel 'Ingrates, descendants of ingrates!'  For when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel 'Who can assure that this heart will remain theirs,' they should have said 'You can assure.'  We see that they are ingrates from the verse '"Our souls are disgusted with the unsubstantial bread"' (Bamidbar 21:5); we see that they are the descendants of ingrates from the verse: '"The woman that you gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I ate"' (Bereishit 3:12)." (Avoda Zara 5a)

 

This gemara has Moshe citing two previous instances of ingratitude: the Jewish people complaining about the manna that God employed to sustain them in the desert, and Adam blaming the sin in the Garden of Eden on Hashem for providing him with a partner.

 

It also mentions that Moshe calls the people ingrates when they do not request divine help in achieving sensitivity to religious ideals.  What connects this failure with ingratitude?  Tosafot explain that people who are not grateful often prefer to not have favors done for them, because they resent feeling beholden to anyone else.  Thus, the same personality trait that prevents someone who receives a gift from saying "Thank you" can also prevent that person from accepting gifts in the first place.

 

Rashi, on the other hand, explains that they did not recognize the things in question as a good.  In other words, Adam truly thought that Eve was no boon, the Jews in the desert truly did not want manna and the Jews that Moshe addresses did not perceive a more religiously sensitive heart as something positive.  For Rashi, the central question is not whether one knows how to express gratitude, but whether one can recognize the good in the first place.

 

There seem to be two aspects to becoming a grateful person.  The first requires that we swallow our pride and admit that others have done favors for us and verbalize out feelings of thanks.  The other demands an awareness of what things in life are truly valuable.  A mistaken scale of priorities can lead us to reject or undervalue the beautiful gifts offered by others.

 

Rav Baruch Epstein (Torah Temima, Bereishit 3:12) discusses these two types of ingratitude and attempts to cite a linguistic proof in favor of Tosafot's understanding.  He points out that the Talmudic phrase for lack of gratitude is "kafui tova."  The word "kofeh" in the Talmud means to cover, as in the phrase "kofeh alav et ha-keli," "he covers it with a vessel" (Mishna Pesachim 6:1).  Thus, this phrase sounds like the conscious attempt to pretend that no good was done, rather than a lack of recognition of what the good is.

 

Yet perhaps we need not identify one of these two understandings as the correct one. After all, expressing appropriate gratitude depends upon avoiding both of the above shortcomings.  To avoid the pitfall of ingratitude, we must take a two-pronged approach that includes both adopting a decent scale of values in recognizing that which is good and a capacity to be beholden in admitting the good done for us by others.

 

[Postscript: The above analysis does not deal with the question of why asking for divine help in acquiring religious hearts is not a violation of human free will.  For one approach to this question, see the Maharsha's commentary ad. loc.]