Date: December 28th 2017


This is an edited version of the dvar that was previously emailed on December 28th 2012

Parshat Vayechi recounts that when the Forefather Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) death drew closer, he summoned his son Yosef (Joseph) who was then the second most powerful ruler in Egypt after Pharaoh. Yaakov desired to be buried in Israel alongside his parents and grandparents, and he asked Yosef to make certain that this would happen. Yosef agreed to accept this responsibility, and he then swore to fulfill his father’s wish.

At that point, “Yisroel (Yaakov) prostrated himself toward the head of the bed” (Parshat Vayechi, 47:31).

There are several different classical interpretations of who it was that Yaakov bowed to and why he did so. The Commentary of Ralbag (ibid.) explains that Yaakov bowed down to Yosef out of gratitude because Yosef had just promised to bury him as requested. The Ralbag continues that all people should learn from this text to respond similarly (with gratitude) when a favor is received.

The Ralbag’s words uncover two unique insights into the Torah’s exalted guidelines on gratitude. Gratitude is normally understood, very simply, as the obligation to first express thanks for a favor received and to then repay it in kind. If gratitude connotes tangibly repaying tangible favors, why did Yaakov act as he did? For one, Yaakov was not actually repaying anything concrete to Yosef - he simply bowed down. Furthermore, why was Yaakov duty-bound to act gratefully at this point? Yosef’s “favor” of burying Yaakov hadn't yet actually occurred – it was only discussed and promised.

These observations indicate a unique dimension of the Torah’s imperative to act with gratitude. Once a person merely “intends” to do a favor, the obligation of gratitude immediately commences. In other words, people are responsible to even repay promised acts of kindness that have not yet been done. For this reason, once Yosef agreed to bury Yaakov as requested, Yaakov immediately acknowledged this kindness by bowing down to Yosef.

Another new idea inherent in the Ralbag on the definition of gratitude is that RESPECT is a component of gratitude. Because Yosef offered to help him, Yaakov deferentially bowed down to Yosef. Aside from the obvious responsibility to repay favors with favors, there is a new and special duty incumbent upon one who receives a favor…respecting the provider of that kindness.

This new idea is eye-opening. Yaakov was Yosef’s Rebbe, his primary teacher of Torah (Rashi, Vayeshev, 37:3). Regarding the obligation to revere one’s Rebbe it is written, “The awe or your Rebbe should be like the awe of Heaven” (Avot 4:15) Yaakov was also Yosef’s father, and honoring a parent is one of the Aseret Hadibrot (Ten Commandments). Yosef’s was thus duty-bound to venerate Yaakov for both of these fundamental reasons. Nevertheless, the responsibility to act with gratitude toward the provider of a favor obliged Yaakov, the Rebbe and father, to bow down to Yosef, the student and the son.

Any person who lives among other people receives constant favors, especially from family and friends. And clearly, being close family does not mean that there is no obligation to repay favors received – Yaakov and Yosef were closely related.

Furthermore… The ideas of the Ralbag carry this application yet further. Especially in the case of a spouse, one is obligated by the Torah to proffer gratitude, not just for the thousands of favors already received, but, in most cases, for the untold thousands of favors one will likely receive over the future years of marriage. Moreover, the Torah’s obligation is not merely to repay all favors received, but to also deeply respect the one who provides them.

Without question, all of one’s relationships would be immeasurably improved by acting in concert with the general ethic that each favor received must be repaid. Imagine how different one’s everyday relationships would be if spouses, parents, or long-time friends were viewed as individuals to whom literally thousands of favors already received must be repaid. This attitude would establish a grateful and loving tone towards these close “associates.” Without question, this attitude would at least preclude a great deal of discord.

This is an edited version of the dvar that was previously emailed on December 28th 2012. That Dvar also included the appeal below, and it is being transcribed:

You are receiving this request because you are on the JHI weekly Dvar Torah email list. We have been sending this well-received Dvar almost every week since May, 2009. It is a way of sharing a text-based concept of the Torah relating to the Shabbat reading of that week. Very often, the emailed Dvar Torah was also taught at different JHI Torah classes over the course of the week during which it was sent.

JHI’s overarching focus is encapsulated in its name. It is a Jewish Heritage Initiative (JHI) in Cambridge, Mass. Its approach is founded upon the Mesorah (tradition) received from our late Rebbe (primary teacher of Torah), Rabbi Henach Liebowitz (1918-2008) OBM. He would often say that the exalted neshama (soul) of every observant or unobservant Jew has a special affinity for the profundities of Torah.

JHI outreach efforts therefore mostly focus on in-depth teaching of Talmudic texts to those who would not otherwise be pursuing this study. The subjects covered are both Gemara (Talmud) and Mussar (the study of the Torah's morality and the service of G-d). In fact, this weekly Dvar is a paradigm of the JHI approach; it communicates a sophisticated and yet text-based idea of Torah. We also regularly invite guests to our homes for Shabbat meals. This helps convey the traditional Shabbat experience to the residents of Cambridge and the students at Harvard and MIT. It is also true that many of the students we touch come from faraway places. Hence, when we enhance their identity as Jews, communities throughout the world may then later be influenced.

The sainted Chofez Chaim (Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohain, 1840-1933) wrote in his work, Ahavat Chessed, that the Torah requires Jews to donate 10 but not more than 20 percent of their income to tzedakkah (charity). The Torah deems this practice a guarantor of wealth. The Chofetz Chaim further clarified that a first tzedakkah obligation is to help one’s truly needy relatives (if there are any). The next priority is to fund the study of Torah. Because Torah study is JHI’s raison d’être, we can confidently represent that your contribution will be funding the spread of Torah learning. Know that there are several major ”Jewish Heritage Initiatives” we’d love to undertake but cannot do so due to a lack of funding.

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