For several months now I have been troubled by a theological question with practical implications. In so many of the sifrai musar, the traditional works of the great rabbis of the past on issues of ethics and personality development, we find that the core ingredient necessary to being a true servant of Hashem is 'hakarat hatov', gratitude for the good G-d has done for us. So much of all we do, from blessings before eating to public expressions of thanksgiving on personal deliverence from illness or danger is based on this fundemental sense of gratitude. When asked how we are, the traditonal response is "Baruch Hashem, Praised be G-d, good". We bless and, in essence, thank G-d for everything from our being able to wake in the morning to a bowel movement.
But I ask you why the great debt of gratitude? I understand that if someone does me a kindness I owe them thankfullness. After all they put themselves out in some way, no matter how small, for me. True G-d does us the greatest of kindnesses. He gives us life renewed each day. And indeed G-d performs for each of many great acts of deliverance. But do I really owe G-d for what He does for me? It takes no effort for G-d to do even the greatest thing. It costs G-d nothing to be kind to me. He expends no energy, no time, no resources. G-d's gifts are what the Talmud calls
"ze nehene v'ze lo chasair", "this one benifits without any cost to the other who provides the benifit". In the case where one can be gifted with no cost to the benifactor it is considered a great evil not to give! All G-d gives us is at no cost to Him. If He would not give us He, by His own ethic, He would be doing evil. Why then do we owe Him gratitude? Why am I considered wayward and held culpabable if I don't keep His Torah. I don't owe G-d any more than I owe rent to a landlord whose house I live in when he could not rent it anyways. And according to the Talmud indeed I do not owe rent to the landlord in that case!
After struggling with this issue for some time I am going to tell you a truth I came to know that at first blush is surprising. Neither you nor I owe G-d for kindnesses received. He didn't put out from His self to give to us. It cost G-d nothing. Hakarat hatov, the foundation of our relationship to G-d, is not paying back a debt owed. Rather hakarat hatov is a personal character trait that feels gratitude for that which is received regardless of the expense of the giver. Hakarat hatov is our appreciation for blessings we are given. It is a feeling engendered not by the sacrifice of the donor who provided us our gifts, but by the gift itself we receive and the relationship it infers between us and our benefactor.
This week my wife and I were sitting together and I mentioned how much I thought I owed her for all she has done for me over the time of our marriage. Lindy said to me, "You don't owe me anything" and she went on to explain that she did not like the idea that my commitment to her was based on debts owed. If I was grateful to her for the love she showed me and felt a desire to show love in return that was great. But she did not warm to the idea of giving out of indebtedness. In the course of our conversation it became clear that yes, I owed her. After all she made effort and sacrifice for me. But in the ideal my response to her would not emerge from the bottom line, that of debts owed. Rather in the ideal my response to Lindy would come instead from a love and gratitude felt in response to her love.
In human relations we indeed owe debts for kindnesses done. Our obligations to honor and care for our parents certainly emerges from our indebtedness to them. Even if we do not love them we are debt bound to show them respect. After all they made effort to put us in the world and raise us. With G-d however it is different. G-d made no effort. Our service to Him cannot come from a debt.
Truth is if our obligation to keep Torah and tradition would eminate from a debt we owe G-d, then Non-Jews should also owe a similar obligation. How can they repay such a huge kindness with a keeping of the minimal seven Noachide laws. And if keeping those laws would be enough to repay our debt to G-d for his kindness then why are we be held liable for 613 commandments?
The answer is that ultimately we are obligated to keep the Torah because of a covenant we accepted at Sinai. The Covenant binds us. We committed ourselves at Sinai to G-d and His Torah and for all generations.
Neither we nor the non-Jews of the world are called to pay a debt to G-d.
Yet, we do have a higher calling. We are challenged to love G-d and to experience His gifts to us as personal kindnesses and invitations to relationship. We are called to gratitude for our blessings so that we may serve Hashem not due to contractual committments but out of love. The feeling of hakarat hatov raises the character of the act of devotion to G-d from obligation to an act of love and relationship. We are not punished for a lack of hakarat hatov. It's not the basis of our requirements to obey the Torah. The feeling of hakarat hatov when serving Hashem offers us an opportunity. When we perform mitzvot out of the feeling of hakarat hatov we are transformed. In the process we become holy. Through the sense of appreciation for our gifts received our service to G-d binds us in love to him, even as it binds husband and wife and all of us in relationships where giving comes out of appreciation rather than indebtedness.
In the portion this week of Va'aira and in the succeeding two weeks we read the story of the Exodus. So many of the mitzvot of the Torah are meant to be
performed "zecher lee'tzeeyat Mitzrayim", "in remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt".
That G-d redeemed us from Egypt does not mean we owe him. The ten plagues, the drowning of the Egyptian army at the Sea and the rest were no effort for G-d. Bringing the Exodus about meant no more challenge to Hashem then leaving the status quo. Yet we were redeemed, and by G-d. That was an awesome gift for us. While we owe no debt we are called upon to remember and be grateful, to let the Exodus be an instrument to bring us to a love of G-d and a desire to be close to Him through keeping His commandments.
In actuality though we do not owe G-d for the kindnesses he bestows on us, His gifts to us are manifestations of his love for us. After all G-d does not have any personal need to get met in granting us His blessings. He could just as well withold as grant. If not for His love for us He could ignore our circumstances entirely. For His love for us we are grateful, and in hakarat hatov, we respond in kind with an expression of love for G-d.
You say to me...Okay so what...What's the point here?
As we mature we are called to have our faith mature with us. We need to be thinking about G-d and the nature of our relationship. I cannot love my wife, nor she me unless she and I are thinking about our dynamics and on a regular basis. That is true for you and your spouse as well. All relationhip, to be alive, requires reflection and intentionality. So too, our relationship with G-d needs to occupy our thoughts.
If our relationship with Hashem is to be alive we need to be thinking about its fibre and impact and with regularity. I will tell you this on a personal level.
Once I realized that I don't really owe G-d and my love for Him emerges from a sense of appreciation for the blessings I am given, a whole new world opened up for me.
While it may not change what I do,my new perspective changes the meaning and intentions of my devotion. In the world of the spirit, meaning and intention is everything.