The Journey to Unity
by Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen


We have been discussing the mitzvah to honor our parents -- a mitzvah which strengthens our sense of gratitude for all that our parents did for us. In this letter, we shall begin to discuss how a sense of gratitude helps us to feel more connected to other human beings:


Unifying Gratitude:


"The perfected world is one where every person without exception gives to and benefits others, and whose heart overflows with gratitude for what he receives from others." -- Strive for Truth by Rabbi Eliyahu E. Dessler, Vol.1


Dear Friends,


When I studied American history, I became aware of different streams within American culture, including one stream which emphasizes the independent nature of the human being -- the "lone ranger" who can live without the help of others. When I studied Jewish history, I discovered that Torah culture stresses the interdependent nature of the human being -- a social being who is in need of others. One reason why the Torah values the trait of gratitude is became this trait enables us to feel connected to all who have benefited us in any way, and the following story can serve as an example:


About nine years ago, Suri Feldman - a Chassidic girl from Boro Park , Brooklyn - got lost in the forest of Bigelow Hollow Park, which is on the Connecticut-Massachusetts state border. She had gone there on a class trip and had inadvertently become separated from her classmates. Over a thousand Jewish volunteers came from several states in order to help the police search for her, and there were non-Jewish volunteers as well. This drama became big news all over the United States , and people all over America were praying that Suri be found safe and well. After searching for two days, a policeman found Suri on a Friday morning while she was saying her prayers, and she was able to rejoin her family for Shabbos. The Chassidic community of Boro Park wanted to publicly express their appreciation to the policemen who searched for Suri, and the leaders of the community organized a public celebration which would honor the policemen. Most of the policemen were not Jewish, and they were very moved by the warm and emotional welcome they received when they arrived in Boro Park . Suddenly, the Chassidic men lifted the policemen on their shoulders, and they began a joyous dance!  When I read the media reports on the celebration and saw the pictures of the Chassidim dancing with their honored guests on their shoulders, I was reminded of how human gratitude can lead to human unity.


In my early childhood, I attended public school in New York City , and I recall reading story books which described the benefits that we receive from the neighborhood storekeepers, policemen, and firemen. When I later began to study Torah, I read stories of how righteous Jewish men and women expressed their appreciation to everyone who benefited them, including those individuals that most people forget to thank. The following story about Rabbi Aryeh Levin of Jerusalem can serve as an example:


For over sixty years, without missing a day, he rose before daylight every morning to join a congregation which prayed the Shemoneh Esrei prayer at the rising of the sun. On his way to the synagogue each morning, he made a point to greet everyone he met on the street; and he was especially careful to wish a good morning to the street-cleaners. He once told his friend, Simcha Raz, why he gave these workers his special attention: "I have an affection for the street-cleaners. Just look: When everyone is still asleep, they take the trouble to come and clean the streets of Jerusalem , so as to support themselves by their own honest labor. Their work is not respected; they are not esteemed for it; their salary is low. And still they take pains to do their task faithfully." ("A Tzaddik in Our Time" by Simcha Raz)


I also read stories about "Roshei Yeshivos" - the Torah scholars who head yeshivos - who showed special honor and appreciation to the kitchen and maintenance staff of their institutions. These stories had a strong influence on me, and when I became the director of a center for Jewish artists, I tried to follow the example of these Torah educators by thanking the kitchen and maintenance staff at our various events and seminars. This approach strengthened my good relationship with Clarence, the superintendent of the building. Clarence was an African American who grew up in a southern state during an era of discrimination against African Americans. He once told me that he felt much gratitude to Jews, for when he had difficulty finding work, the only ones who were willing to hire him and help him were Jews.


When I worked at the center for Jewish artists, I also attended conferences and study institutes which were organized by Jewish men and women who were rediscovering their Jewish roots. Some of these conferences and institutes took place during the summer on college campuses, and the kitchen staff at these colleges had the extra burden of following our regulations regarding kosher food. At one summer institute, I suggested to the organizers that on the last day of the institute we publicly thank the kitchen staff.  I reminded them that appreciating and honoring all those who helped us is a basic Jewish value, and they decided to follow my suggestion. During the concluding meal, we invited the entire kitchen staff to come into the dining room, and we gave them a standing ovation. They were very moved, and one of them told us that we were the first group that ever thanked them for their efforts.


I now live in Jerusalem , in the neighborhood of Bayit Vegan. One Shabbos morning, I met a Filipino man who works in my neighborhood. He seemed somewhat lonely, so I started to talk with him, and I asked him if he prefers to speak in English or Hebrew. He was delighted that I was interested in talking to him, and he said that it would be easier for him if we conversed in English. He mentioned that he was helping to take care of an elderly man in the neighborhood. I then told him how much I appreciate the dedicated care and respect that so many Filipino people give to the elderly. "This is a very special trait of your people," I said. And I added, "Our Torah teaches that God rewards each human being for any good that they do. God will therefore reward the Filipino people for the respect and honor which they show to the elderly." His face lit up, and he warmly shook my hand.


The above stories serve as a reminder that a sense of gratitude can strengthen our bond with other human beings, and with the help of Hashem, we shall continue this discussion in the next letter.



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen


P.S. A related theme that we need to explore is how a sense of gratitude can strengthen our bond with all creation.