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The Passover Haggadah: The Instruction Manual of Gratitude

Metzora (Leviticus 14-15 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

There are numerous lessons that can be derived from the Hagaddah. Rabbi Noach Orlowek points out that the Hagaddah is the single, most revealing text about Judaism’s approach to gratitude.

The significance of the trait of gratitude in Torah thought is very apparent. Three times a day we thank God in the 'Modim' prayer; every time we eat, we thank God for providing us with the food. Also, in the realm of inter-personal relationships, there is great emphasis on showing gratitude to those who help us. The mitzvot of honoring one’s parents and teachers, for example, are largely based on a recognition of how much our parents and teachers have done for us.1 Yet it is no easy task to retain a constant feeling of hakarat hatov, gratitude, for all the kindnesses that Hashem, and, lehavdil, other people do for us. How can a person develop himself so that he excels in this most important trait?

The Haggadah and the laws pertaining to it, can answer this question: In order to fulfill the Mitzva of recounting our leaving Egypt, the Talmud tells us that we must begin by mentioning the 'genut' (bad) before we begin talking about the 'shevach' (good).2 There is a dispute as to what exactly this entails; Rav says discussing the 'bad' means that before we begin thanking God for taking us out of Egypt, we must first mention how our ancestors originally served idols. Shmuel argues that the 'bad' refers to the initial slavery that we suffered in Egypt before we left. We appear to follow both opinions, because both aspects of the 'bad' are in the Haggadah. It seems that both opinions teach us a fundamental lesson about how to develop a proper feeling of gratitude.

Shmuel's opinion that we must begin with the slavery teaches us that in order for a person to feel truly thankful for everything he has, he must first be able to contrast his present positive situation with the past suffering that he endured. In order for us to truly appreciate God's kindness in taking us out of Egypt, we must first focus on the terrible suffering that we endured in the slavery in Egypt. By doing this, we can avoid the trap of taking for granted the physical and spiritual freedom that we experienced after leaving Egypt. So too, in our daily lives, when things are going smoothly, it is very easy to forget what Hashem has done for us, and how He continues to constantly protect and sustain us. For example, when a person's financial situation is stable, he naturally may take for granted his situation and refrain from sufficiently thanking God. However, were he to think about the times when he did not know how he would support himself, it is far easier for him to contrast his past difficulties with his current security. This should help him feel gratitude to God.

It is less obviously apparent how Rav's explanation of discussing the 'bad' inculcates us with the trai of gratitude. How does mentioning the fact that our descendants served idols bring us to a greater appreciation of God? It seems that one of the main factors that prevents a person from showing gratitude is a sense of arrogance. A person who feels arrogant will have an attitude that he deserves all the kindness that God, or people, bestow upon him. Accordingly, there is no recognition of the good that others have done for him. He does not feel that they have done anything special, rather he has every right to expect them to serve him.

In contrast, a humble person feels that he is not deserving of anything. Therefore, he views anything that is done for him, as a particularly kind act therefore, he truly recognizes the good done for him. With this understanding, we can explain how reminding ourselves of our former lowly state can bring us to a greater appreciation of God. We acknowledge that we are not great people with tremendous lineage, rather our heritage is nothing to be particularly proud of. Moreover, we acknowledge that any spiritual accomplishments that we have achieved are due to God’s kindness. when we say in the Haggadah, "From the beginning, our forefathers worshipped idols, and now HaMakom [God] has brought us close to serving Him." By stressing our humble background, we make ourselves far more able to properly appreciate kind deeds done for us.

  1. See Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzva 33, Sichot Mussar, Maamer 73, p.323-4.
  2. Pesachim, 116a.


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