Hakoras Hatov and Rosh Hashanah
Years ago, when I was a rebbi in the Telshe Yeshiva, I had the privilege of working together with Rav Yaakov Dardac zt”l, a mechanech of note and our high school principal. He was a great talmid chochom, a yirei Shomayim, and a medakdeik behalacha. From time to time, he would post a sign on the bulletin board that he was selling seforim from the Steipler Gaon, Rav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, and I often took advantage of the offer. I always wondered what Rav Dardac’s connection to the Steipler was, but I never bothered to ask him. Recently, I saw a story in a sefer regarding this relationship, a story that carries with it a tremendous lesson.
Rav Dardac’s father, Rav Shmaryahu, lived in Bnei Brak not far from the Steipler. At that time, the Gaon was living off of very meager funding, not enough to support even his simple lifestyle. He was wary of any money that was not obtained through the most kosher of sources. Rav Shmaryahu thought of a plan. The Gaon would give him a package of his seforim to send to his son, Reb Yaakov, who could sell them to bnei Torah in America. It would become a new avenue for income. The Steipler agreed to this arrangement and, shortly afterwards, he brought a box of seforim to Rav Shmaryahu’s house to send to his son.
When Reb Yaakov received the package, he would sell the seforim, and when he would send a check for the funds back to his father, it was accompanied by a letter to the Gaon. He wrote some questions on the chiddushim and looked forward to receiving the answers. With the next package of seforim came a letter from the Steipler with his answers. This cycle repeated itself every few months. A package would be sent out to America, a check would arrive in return with some questions, and with the next package came the Gaon’s answers.
Years passed, the Steipler was aging, his kochos were waning and this arrangement came to a halt. No more packages and no more letters were sent back and forth. B’siyata diShmaya, there was funding available from other sources. A while later, however, Rav Yaakov had a few shailos and was interested in hearing what the Steipler had to say, so he sent a letter to his father. By this time, the tzaddik had stopped any correspondence by mail for lack of strength. However, when he received Rav Dardac’s letter, he felt that he must answer and he exerted himself to write back. After sealing the letter, he personally delivered it to Rav Shmaryahu’s house to be sent to America.
A few days passed and there was a knock at Rav Shmaryahu’s door. It was the Steipler, a bit out of breath.
“Did you mail the letter yet?” he asked.
“No,” was the answer.
“Good. Good. Could I have it back? I will im yirtzeh Hashem replace it with another letter shortly.” Rav Shmaryahu returned the letter.
A couple of days later, the Gaon returned with another letter. Rav Shmaryahu, wondering about this exchange of letters, asked, “Most probably the rov felt that he made a mistake in halacha and that is why he wrote another letter?”
“No, that was not it.”
“Then probably there was something to add.”
“No, I merely rewrote the entire letter word for word.”
Seeing the look of bewilderment on the father’s face, the Steipler explained: “When I first received the letter from your son, I really didn’t have the strength to answer. But I said to myself, es past nisht, it doesn’t look right, not to answer. Here, Rav Yaakov will think to himself, ‘I sold Rav Kanievsky’s seforim for years and I can’t get answers to my shailos.’ So I sat down to write the letter.
“But after I delivered the letter, I thought to myself: ‘What? That is why you wrote the letter? Merely because es past nisht? It doesn’t look right? I am obligated to write the letter because of hakoras hatov, as a debt of gratitude for the chessed he did for me for years. Thus, I took back the letter and rewrote it, but this time with feeling and emotions of appreciation and gratitude. Now I was mekayeim my chiyuv of hakoras hatov.”
Let us contemplate for a moment how medakdek the Steipler was not only to do what was right, but also to do it with the proper thoughts. Furthermore, every second this tzaddik had was priceless, designated for limud haTorah and avodas Hashem. In his advanced age, it was vital for him to preserve every bit of his strength. Yet, this did not deter him from walking back to his neighbor’s house to take the letter back, rewrite it, and then bring it back personally. This is how paramount the Steipler felt hakoras hatov is.
After the passing of Yehoshua bin Nun, the Bnei Yisroel continued in their quest to conquer Eretz Yisroel. They came to Beis Eil, formerly known as Luz, but could not find the entrance to the city. Seeing one of the Canaanites emerging from the city, they asked him how to enter and promised not to kill him when they conquered the city. He showed them the way, and, in gratitude, they allowed him and his family to be the only survivors of the city. He then went to the land of Chittim, built a city, and called it Luz (Shoftim I 23-26).
“It was learned in a Baraisa: This was Luz, where they would produce the techeiles. This is Luz, where Sancheirev, the king of Ashur, entered but did not disarrange it. Nevuchadnetzar did not destroy it, and even the Malach Hamovess has no permission to enter it…” (Sotah 46b).
What was the great act of chessed that this Canaanite performed? He merely signaled with his hand how to enter the city. Yet, for this alone, the Yidden felt obliged to spare him and his entire family and, in the process, transgress the commandment of “lo sechayeh kol neshamah” (Devorim 20:16). The city this man built was blessed not only with preparing a great mitzvah (techeiles), but also the financial benefits that came with it. The great rulers of the world and even the Angel of Death had no power over it.
All this was hakoras hatov for a small deed.
• • • • •
We are on the threshold of another Rosh Hashanah. This middah of hakoras hatov is very much intertwined with this holy day. How so? Simple logic would dictate that if we are standing before Hakadosh Boruch Hu and asking for a new year of happiness, health and hatzlachah, we should first be thankful for the blessings that he bestowed upon us in the past year. Recognition of Hashem’s goodness is the foundation upon which our tefillos for our needs are built. This is why Shemonah Esrei begins with the bracha of Magein Avrohom and Mechayei Meisim, blessings that declare Hashem’s kindness and goodness to the world on a daily basis.
“Now all the trees of the field were not yet on the earth and the herb of the field had not yet sprouted, for Hashem Elokim had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil” (Bereishis 2:5). “Why was there no rain? Because Adam was not yet created to recognize the good in rain. But when he came and realized the great need for rain, he davened, and only then did the rains fall, causing the trees and vegetation to grow” (Rashi ibid.).”
Before davening for rain, Adam first had to recognize its worth and that it would come only through Hashem’s chessed. Hakoras hatov is the key for us to be answered in our tefillos. When was Adam born and when did he recognize this need to daven? On Rosh Hashanah.
“Why are there nine brachos in the Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah? It correlates with the nine times Chana mentioned Hashem’s name in her tefillah. For Sarah, Rochel and Chana were remembered on Rosh Hashanah” (Brachos 29a). And what was this tefillah of Chana? It was a song of gratitude for being blessed with a son after many years of being childless. “Then Chana prayed and said: My heart exults in Hashem, my pride has been raised through Hashem. My mouth is opened wide against my antagonists, for I rejoice in your salvation” (Shmuel 1:1). Only after nine pesukim of shirah does Chana say a tefillah for the success of her son, Shmuel. Our Tefillas Mussaf is based on hers, a song of gratitude.
Expressing our thanks verbally accompanied by our emotions is, of course, very important. But actions speak louder than words. Showing Hashem that we are using his presents in a most constructive way is the highest form of hakoras hatov. When one gives his friend a gift, it is incumbent upon the recipient to say thank you. But if after the thank you, the giver notices that the gift is stored away in a closet and never used, he wonders why he gave it in the first place. On the other hand, if he sees the gift being put to good use, it is very gratifying to know that his efforts were not wasted.
If Hashem granted us another year in this world, then utilizing the time for good causes is the best way for us to express our gratitude. Especially in the days immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah, we must use the time for extra limud haTorah and tefillah. If we were blessed with a bountiful parnassah, then using it for mitzvos and for helping our poor brothers and sisters is the highest form of saying thank you. Then we will have added leverage for beseeching Hashem for another kesivah vachasimah tovah.