"Hakaras hatov can never extend beyond the value of the etzem zach for which you have hakaras hatov"
INthe coming months, I suspect we are going to hear a lot about the hakaras hatov, that the Jewish community owes to certain politicians for all the good they have done to benefit the United States and Israel. Given that fact, it behooves us to know what the parameters are for the obligation of hakaras hatov.
A story I heard many years ago involving Rav Aharon Kotler ztz"l, from an eyewitness, casts a great deal of light on that question. An architect had drafted plans for a new building for Beis Medrash Govoha, and one of the yeshivah's primary supporters came to the office to examine the plans. He immediately began suggesting all sorts of changes: move the kitchen here; place the beis medrash here, etc. Reb Aharon immediately accepted every suggestion that his benefactor made.
The next day the philanthropist was back to look at the plans yet again. He asked Reb Aharon where the shiur rooms were going to be, and he expressed dismay that apparently there were none. Reb Aharon explained that only he said shiurim in the yeshivah, and thus there was no need for shiur rooms. And with that he made clear that the meeting was over.
Those who had been present for both meetings were left bewildered by the contrast between the two, and they posed the question to Reb Aharon: "When he came in yesterday, you immediately accepted every change he suggested, without any resistance. And yet today, you summarily dismissed his suggestion and more or less sent him packing. What changed?"
Reb Aharon explained the chiluk (distinction). "Mr. So-and-So is the most devoted friend the yeshivah has. Without his support, the yeshivah might not even exist. So if he thinks the dining room should be in one place and dorms in another, hakaras hatov dictates that I should accept his suggestions.
"But when he starts talking about the shiurim in the yeshivah, he is touching upon its very essence. That's my task as rosh yeshivah, not one that I can delegate to any balabos, no matter how great my hakaras hatov to him."
And then Reb Aharon laid down the determinative principle: "Hakaras hatov can never extend beyond the value of the etzem zach for which you have hakaras hatov."
In the current circumstances, that principle means that if there are two candidates, one of whom has a solid record of accomplishments, achieved over substantial obstacles, but who you estimate to have little chance of being elected, and there is a second candidate who strongly advocates for similar policies and who has shown himself to be perfectly willing to take on opponents in order to achieve his policy goals, and who you think has a far better chance of being elected, then hakaras hatov cannot mandate support for the former, if it comes at the expense of the various goals that gave rise to that hakaras hatov in the first place.
Back in Print
The late Rabbi Uri Zohar's sefer Breaking Through: How to Reach Our Struggling Kids has been reprinted and is back in stores, and I can only hope that it reaches the audience it deserves.
I have written about this remarkable book previously, and will not do so again, except to add one point. The title suggests that it is a work for parents of obviously struggling teenagers. And in fact, most of the book is directed toward dealing with such teenagers.
But all parents will benefit from an exposure to Rabbi Zohar's profound wisdom on a subject that he knew well on a personal level. Indeed, it has long been the case that the leading parenting experts in the Israeli chareidi world draw many of their examples from the so-called off-the-derech kids. When I was a young father, the premier lecturer on the subject of parenting in the chareidi community was Rabbi Yechiel Yaakovson — he still has a large following today — and many of his examples were drawn from what he used to refer to as "the kids on the barzelim," i.e., those sitting on the iron barriers adjacent to many Israeli streets.
His point was that those kids were just the tip of the iceberg, and that many others whose outer appearance was still perfectly normative experienced at least some of their alienation, and for similar reasons.
I think he was right. And though parent-child relationships in the Torah world are, in general, very strong and reinforced by a Torah life, there is still a lot that wise parents can learn from the cases where things did not turn out — yet — as the parents dreamed.
Once Gone, Lost Forever
A little over a month ago, I noticed a father and son davening next to me. From his hat and diminutive size, I judged the boy to be a recent bar mitzvah. I have a thing about fathers and sons — I come from a family of five boys and have seven sons of my own — and the sight of them warmed the cockles of my heart.
After davening, the father exited the room quickly, and I followed after him. But where was his son? I wondered to myself. Soon, the son ran past me, eager to rejoin his father. But by that time, the father had already removed his phone from his pocket. And before they had reached the top of the stairs leading from the room in which we had davened, the father was already talking on his phone and continued doing so for the rest of his walk home with his son.
This scene bothered me more than a little. Just a few days before, a close friend, who has lots of struggles with his adult children, had confided to me that he wished he had been more attentive to his children when they were younger — more interested in their activities, more eager to speak to them about whatever happened to be on their minds at that moment.
I spent much of the next day debating whether I would say something to the father the next time I saw him. I don't know him personally, and I would guess that he is less than half my age. But I knew he was from a family of educators and thought that he might be responsive to what I had to say.
The next evening, I davened Maariv in another minyan, at least two hours earlier than the previous evening. And the father was there, this time without his son, even though I cannot remember ever having seen him before at that particular minyan. That was enough to convince me that I should say something.
So, after the minyan, I ran over and asked him in my American Hebrew whether I could speak to him for a couple of minutes. I recounted what I had seen the previous evening. He nodded and smiled nervously. But he obviously grasped my point.
I assured him that I was not speaking to him because I am a better father than he is, but rather because, looking back, I now realize I was a much worse father. True, I did not have a cell phone when my kids were young, but neither had I been overly curious about their inner lives.
Yes, I taught them to swim, though older brothers handled most of the bicycle riding training of the younger boys, and we took family vacations every summer. But in retrospect, I realize that I was simply not alert enough to their invitations to a conversation. And relationships that are not established with children when they are young are much harder to form when they are older. Baruch Hashem, they all love to be together as a family, and do not exclude their old father.
But I could have done better, a lot better. And when my chavrusa tells me that his children never make a major decision without consulting him, that realization is brought home clearly.
That's what I wanted to share with the young father who crossed my path. And, happily, he took the message with a smile and a thanks.