‘There are two reasons,’ my father used to explain, why the cat can’t say the Grace after Meals. Firstly, she can’t read; secondly she never thinks she’s had enough.’ He was referring specifically to the verse which, as it happens, we read in the Torah tomorrow: ‘You shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God.’ Our dogs have since acquired a similar trait to Fluffy, the cat of my childhood.
Judaism is a culture of blessing. I didn’t know the phrase hakarat hatov until a friend from Glasgow days drew it to my attention. It means recognising and appreciating the good which has been done to us. She phoned unexpectedly from Israel to thank me for publicly acknowledging how much her family had helped my father, my brother and I after our mother died. ‘Thank you for the hakarat hatov,’ she said.
There was a lot to be grateful to them for. They, the Gaba family, took us into their home almost every Friday night for many months, taught us the Shabbat songs, made wonderful meals of which my favourite part was always the jelly with tiny air bubbles in it, then saw us safely home. The two daughters took me to play with zoo animals while the boys challenged my brother at chess. Sadly, neither of the girls is living anymore; Phyllis was knocked down by a car and Judith, who’d phoned me scarcely twelve months ago, died just weeks ago of cancer.
Whenever I think of hachnasat orchim, hospitality and welcome, I think of that family; they are my role model for what chesed, true kindness, means.
The textual basis of hakarat hatov is the Mishnah’s insistence that we bless life for the good we receive. The formula is simple: ‘Blessed are you God…who is good and does good.’ Strangely, I’ve only heard this blessing recited twice in my life – and once it was by me. The parallel blessing Baruch Dayan Ha’emet , the Job-like ‘what can we do but accept this’ acknowledgement of bad tidings which is said at funerals, I’ve heard a hundred times. These proportion are surely wrong.
The emotional and spiritual reasons for acknowledging the good are that this creates an environment of generosity and appreciation. It’s an antidote to our culture of entitlement, in which we don’t even notice privileges because we simply take them as given. The last eighteen months have made many of us more aware of many basic aspects of our lives to which we may have given little thought before: what it means to have flour to bake good bread; the importance of faithful friends and helpful neighbours; the loveliness of what we may previously have seen as just a park or only a tree.
A young woman training for the priesthood offered a beautiful Thought for the Day on Radio 4 in the middle of the first lockdown. ‘Behold the lilies of the field,’ she quoted, ‘They toil not neither do they spin.’ I can’t recall her exact words, but they amounted to this: I’d always thought about the theology, about trusting God and not worrying. But walking in the park with my immune-compromised husband, I said to myself: ‘No; just look at the flowers. Behold them; just look.’
This week has reminded me once again of hakarat hatov because I’ve had the privilege of officiating at three weddings. I always ask the couple to tell me about the values with which they’ve been brought up that they want to take with them into the home they hope to build together. In each case this week, the bride and groom wrote about their parents and grandparents with tender appreciation. Yesterday, as I repeated some of her words under the wedding canopy, I watched the bride’s parents reach for and tightly hold each other’s hands.
In our too-fast-moving, grab-and-eat consume culture, if we noticed and acknowledged life’s gifts and appreciated one another more, we would be a less hurting and less hurtful society and cherish the world with more care.