Gratitude and Reparations- An Inextricable Link
As you receive this newsletter, many in the Jewish world are completing eight days of candle lighting, eating starchy, oily food and giving thanks. Indeed, it is gratitude and praise that are key purposes of the holiday (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 21b) and continue to radiate throughout the month of Tevet. For this reason I chose to focus the middah work in my va'ads (practice groups) this month on Hakarat HaTov / Gratitude. Towards the end of class last week one of the participants raised a complication with Gratitude - What if the good you experience comes from extraction and exploitation of land or another people?
My initial, internal reaction was both excited and dismissive and went something like this: “What a great question, AND, let’s focus on the task at hand - building muscle to notice the good and express gratitude.” However, within the first day of my own Hakarat HaTov practice I smacked right up against this question and realized that it can’t be separated from basic gratitude muscle-building. A piece of chocolate brought the issue to a head. My usual practice is to purchase and try to only eat fair-trade chocolate that is sourced from companies that don’t employ child labor. However, over Chanukah, not everyone serves Divine’s guiltless gelt. My Hakarat HaTov practice is to recognize the good I am experiencing and notice where that good came from. In the case of this little round piece of gold-packaged chocolate, the good was the smooth, rich, sweet taste melting in my mouth. Where did this “good” come from? There was my friend who bought it, the people who sold, transported, manufactured and packaged it. And then there are the growers and people who harvest the cocoa beans. In many cases these are children who are working in harsh conditions at low, if any wages. Not good.
What does that Hakarah/recognition/awareness do? In the case of chocolate, it mandates a need to use consumer power and regulation to get the chocolate industry to stop exploiting children. How about with a more complicated issue like land? One of the goods that I experience regularly is the physical beauty of the place where I live. This happens to be land that was stolen by European settlers from the Wampanoag people some 300 years ago. Does that recognition mean leaving or returning the land?
The rabbis of the Talmud dealt with a related question that is foundational in thinking about reparations.
If one robbed another of a beam and built it into a building, Beit Shammai say he must destroy the entire building and return the beam to the owners. And Beit Hillel say that the injured party receives only the value of the beam, but not the beam itself, due to an ordinance instituted for the sake of the penitent (Takanat HaShavim). In order to encourage repentance the sages were lenient and required the robber to return only the value of the beam. The law goes according to Beit Hillel. (Paraphrased from Talmud Bavli Gitten 55a, based on Sefaria translation)
Beit Shammai are idealists and purists and insist that the entire structure needs to come down for the sake of true justice. Beit Hillel were realists and pragmatists and realized that more good would be done if the transgressors could offer reparations rather than lose everything. It is important to note that both schools require something to be done to redress the stolen property.
How does this all relate to gratitude and recognizing the good? The key is in recognition and awareness. Rabbi Eliyah Dessler teaches in his Discourse on Lovingkindness, that gratitude leads to Chesed / loving kindness. I know this from experience, that when I can notice the goodness in my life I feel filled up and want to do good, to pay it forward to others. When we include awareness of the exploitation and extraction involved in the goodness we experience, it can create a feeling of discomfort and dissonance. For the sake of justice and repair it is important to feel this. What comes next is key. Do we dull our awareness and ignore the exploitation because it is a “buzz-kill” on the goodness we feel; Do we forsake all the goodness we experienced because it is “tainted” by exploitation; or do we find a way to hold both? Beit Shammai seems to promote the approach of forsaking the good to achieve pure justice. The rabbinic tradition decided long ago to follow Beit Hillel, while Beit Shammai will be the dominant position in messianic times. This may be because moral purity and strict justice are messianic concepts. In this messy world where we are all morally compromised, the challenge is not to be pure, rather it is to keep pushing for the most justice we can achieve given all the factors. For Beit Hillel, this means letting the building stand while paying reparations for the stolen property.
The gratitude practice I invite you to develop with me is one in which recognizing the good comes not only with the question, “how can I express thanks,” but also, “how can I/we repay what was stolen, extracted or exploited to make this good?” Rabbi Simcha Zissel, one of the early Mussar Movement leaders, writes that when we receive a gift, it is actually an act of theft not to express thanks to the giver. All the more so, if what we have received was actually stolen or gotten through exploitation. May the recognition of good not end with our own experience, but may it motivate us to repair, so a greater good can be experienced by those whose labor, land, bodies and minds created all this goodness.