Recognizing Goodness: The Theory

Two American presidents of Protestant faith–Bill Clinton and Barack Obama--have spoken extensively about the Jewish concept of "Tikkun Olam." Tikun Olam, the Hebrew term for "repairing the world", has come to represent a process for addressing societal problems. Another Jewish term, I think, may soon come to inspire people beyond Jewish circles, because, like Tikun Olam, the concept that it represents has universal appeal.  That term is “Hakarat HaTov,” the Hebrew phrase for “recognizing goodness.”

There are, however, important distinctions between the two terms. Tikun Olam applies when something is broken and, therefore, in need of repair. Hakarat HaTov, on the other hand, pertains exclusively to situations where something good transpires.  Also, while powerful leaders like Clinton and Obama might single-handedly effect Tikun Olam, most of us would find the task daunting.  However Hakarat HaTov, or recognizing goodness, is an effort that each of us is equipped to undertake. 
Recently, with assistance from my friend and teacher Rav Shraga, I finished studying an anthology of texts compiled by Rabbi Isaac Fish on the subject of recognizing goodness. (Someone, I hope, will translate Rabbi Fish’s work into English.)  That study expanded my view of the concept of recognizing goodness to the point where I think it deserves our attention in not merely one blog but three.  
Here, I’ll offer some theory behind the practice of recognizing goodness, then during the next two weeks, I’ll invite you to join me in considering various strategies for bringing that theory to life.   
Fundamentally, the practice of recognizing goodness can take place on two levels. First, we can recognize goodness that was done by someone else on our behalf.  Whether the doer-of-goodness intended to do good for us or whether the good deed was unintentional, we must actively acknowledge our benefactor for having done good. What''s more, even if the doer-of-goodness didn''t have to do much, acknowledgement, I think, is in order.  Degree of effort aside, the appropriate response would be an expression of thanks to the doer-of-goodness. At the least, we must generate within ourselves a feeling of gratefulness, or as some might say, an "attitude of gratitude".  
The practice of recognizing goodness can come into play also when we hear about an act of goodness performed by another for someone else. Even when we don’t benefit, ourselves, something wonderful has happened. Not to grasp that positive change misses opportunity. The quantity of goodness in the world has been expanded. We should be appreciative. In fact, we should be ecstatic!  
Recognizing goodness won’t take us a lot of time. I timed myself. To compose and speak a full sentence of thanks -- subject and predicate -- required less than five seconds. 
But let''s face it, recognizing goodness is difficult, for at least two reasons.  First, because the abundance of goodness can overwhelm us.  In fact, if you look around, you may notice an incessant barrage of goodness. The bigger problem, and this is really why I am reflecting on recognizing goodness in the space we call "52", is that some human beings may not have what it takes to recognize goodness. 
For one thing, to recognize goodness is to admit that a portion of our success is attributable to someone else. That may detract from our own feeling of accomplishment. For another point, to acknowledge goodness is to suggest that we have a degree of dependence on the doer-of-good. We may even owe some sort of moral debt. Yet our society lionizes independence and deplores moral indebtedness. 
It would be hard, however, to argue that the practice of recognizing goodness does not have significant value. First, consider basic etiquette.  It’s simply not polite to ignore someone’s gesture of goodness. Moreover, when we recognize goodness by thanking or complimenting someone, we may have tightened our bond with that person.  Dependence and indebtedness may have actually drawn us closer.  
Ultimately, though, recognizing goodness involves even more than manners or friendship.  To recognize good is to enhance our lives.  Despite the challenges, it’s essential, I believe, for us, as human beings, to develop an appreciation for goodness even when it does not appear to help us personally.  By doing so, I''m convinced, we become stronger people living better lives.  
Next week, we’ll explore some of the roads that we might travel to reach our destination, to truly recognize goodness. If we are committed to recognizing goodness, we can certainly repair some of our own shortcomings, particularly, a reluctance to be grateful or complimentary. And, if enough of us resolve to adopt RG, we may actually bring about Tikun Olam. 
Shalom, Ben.
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