It was in the middle of a shiur on Megillat Esther two years ago that Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein was struck by a simple sentence: “The king could not sleep.” In the Megillah, King Achashverosh was kept awake by a nagging feeling that there was someone who had done him a service which he had not repaid. Flipping through his sefer zichoronos (“book of rememberances”) Achashverosh found that a certain Jew by the name of Mordechai had saved him from being poisoned, but had yet to be rewarded. Thus began a series of events that would lead to the miraculous redemption of the Jews from the threat of genocide.
What caught Rabbi Wallerstein’s attention was the king’s book, in which he diligently recorded all good done for him by others – and which he always paid back. That book, says the Midrash, was what ended up saving the king’s life despite his reprehensible character, because he personified the middah (character trait) of Hakaras Hatov (gratitude). “I was very intrigued,” recalls Rabbi Wallerstein, “because Achashverosh, who was a terrible person, had that attribute, and that attribute ended up saving the Jews.”
The rabbi turned to the girls in his class and asked them, “Does anyone have such a book?” No one did. “Well, guess what?” he told them, “I don’t, either. How could it be that Achashverosh had such a book, and we don’t?” At that moment, Rabbi Wallerstein was inspired to create a book in which a person could write, every night, things for which they are grateful – a flower, a sunrise, a new job, or a kindness done by a friend, a parent, a spouse, a coworker, and especially, Hashem. After one year, their book would be filled with gratitudes, just like Achashverosh’s sefer zichoronos.
This month , Rabbi Wallerstein’s vision becomes a reality with the release of “Let There Be Rain”, by Artscroll Publishers. In similar format to the book, “Chofetz Chaim: A Lesson a Day”, which presents daily teachings on the different facets of Shmiras Halashon (the laws of speech), Rabbi Shimon Finkelman worked alongside Rabbi Wallerstein to compose 180 lessons onHakaras HaTov based on Rabbi Wallerstein’s shiurim, Torah sources and personal stories. To accompany “Let There Be Rain” is a daily journal designed by artist Yona Weinreb (with a beautiful krias shma insert) in which readers can write things they are grateful for at the end of each day; at the end of a year, they will have their own sefer zichronos.
But why, one might ask, is there a need to devote an entire book to the middah of HakarasHatov, and another to writing down gratitudes? Why not focus on middos like anger or selfishness, which can be particularly destructive? Because, says Rabbi Wallerstein, when you develop Hakaras Hatov, your other middos improve along with it. “The worst middah brought down in the sefarim is anger,” he explains. “But if you have gratitude, you’re not going to get angry. Or someone who’s cheap, if they appreciate that what they have is a gift from Hashem, they’ll start giving. So it really encompasses everything.” Rabbi Wallerstein cites Torah sources, like the story of Balaak, as an illustration of the importance of gratitude: although Balaak hired Bilaam to curse the Jewish people, it resulted in a blessing. Despite his bad intentions, something good came out of it, which merited his name being mentioned in the Torah – and Ruth being his descendant. The rabbi explains, “Hashem is screaming at us in the Torah about Hakaras Hatov!”
Which is why people have much to gain by writing their own sefer zichronos. “When you get used to writing positive things and thinking about positive things, you become a positive person,” Rabbi Wallerstein says. And with “Let There Be Rain” and the daily journal , readers can experience that transformation – even at a young age. “If you give this book to a five-year-old and say, ‘Every night, write down one thing you can say thank you for.’ I have no question that a child who grows up that way will be a very healthy child in all his relationships.”
And, says the rabbi, it’s in our relationships where Hakaras Hatov is needed most. One of the biggest detriments to a healthy relationship is lack of appreciation. Many times, Rabbi Wallerstein has seen relationships suffer because of a pervasive sense of entitlement, particularly in the teenagers who describe the resentment the feel at their parents for not buying them a car, or an iPhone, or whatever item it is they felt was their due. Many of them believe that it’s simply their parents’ “job” to provide them with these things, and often don’t express appreciation even when they get them.
But, sadly, entitlement is not reserved for teenagers, the rabbi notes. Many of us wrestle with it well into adulthood, finding ourselves resentful at Hashem when He falls short at his “job” to provide a shidduch right away, a good income, a beautiful house, healthy children, or whatever it is we desire. As a result, our connection with Him becomes strained. However, daily practice of Hakaras HaTov can turn it all around. Says Rabbi Wallerstein, “When you write a gratitude in your book to someone, at the same time you’re thanking them, you’re saying to yourself, ‘This person recognized me…and made me feel loved.’ It’s building the relationship.”
Writing in a sefer zichoronos can also make an impact on Yom Kippur, when Hashem opens our sefer zichoronos in the world above and judges us by what he finds there. But, the rabbi says, “If we all write a book of only good that was done for us, then we can turn to Hashem on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and say, ‘Don’t open the sefer zichoronos in the other world…I have a book in this world that I wrote with my own hand that only has good, and only has gratitude. Instead of reading my book there, read my book here. It’s a game-changer.”
While thousands are awaiting the release of “Let There Be Rain”, no one is anticipating it more than the rabbi himself. He says, “The book is great, and it’s going to change lives, but more important to me is that there are going to thousands of people writing books of thank you to someone. That I might have been a part of that, that’s the most exciting thing.”