The Janitor, the Rosh Yeshiva and a Lesson in Appreciation

hero image
31 May 2018

There is a piece of marriage advice that was shared during one of the many kallah-training courses I took, that has always stuck with me (although I can’t say I always implement it with aplomb):

A renowned Rosh Yeshiva, who spends his day full of acclaim for his brilliance but comes home to a screaming and/or critical wife, will be a far less happy and confident person than the janitor who spends his day sweeping the floor but who comes home to a smiling and caring wife.

There are many take-aways that I’ve gleaned from this idea over the years, but there’s one particular thought that has been striking me lately about this example, and that is the power of appreciation…  or lack thereof.

Any working mother will identify with the following scenario: She comes home from an exhausting day of work and just wants to collapse on the couch. However, she doesn’t have that luxury, because no matter the stress she endured that day, she still needs to find the energy reserves to put dinner on the table for her family. She struggles over to the pantry and trying to regain her second wind, puts together a meal, trying to include foods each of her (picky) kids like. Finally, dinner is ready, she calls the kids down feeling like she ran a marathon, sets the food down on the table, and her child turns to her with a frown and says, “That’s what’s for dinner?”

Or the Thursday night when the wife slaves away making dish after dish for a large amount of company at superhuman speed (wondering why they don’t feature frum women making Shabbos as a reality TV show), when her husband walks into the kitchen and, rather than exclaiming how wonderful the food looks and smells, he comments about the mess.

Or the husband who comes home after a long day of work and, trying to help his wife, offers to go to the store to pick up some groceries, only to return home from the errand with her shaking her head in annoyance because he bought the wrong brand of mustard.

Or when the employee spends hours trying to help a customer, going above and beyond their job responsibilities and, rather than noting his excellent customer service, the boss complains about a minute issue.

I could go on and on. I won’t. Everyone has their own personal examples to fill in the blank.

The cynics will respond and say, yes, that’s life. People tend to look and comment on the negative. But common as this may be, it’s no less hurtful. More than anything else we face throughout our day, it’s the feeling of lack of appreciation after we put in a lot of hard work that can drain us.

A few weeks ago, I posted an article entitled, “Why I Write to Empty Pews.” It was an article expressing frustration that, while I put my heart into my writing, hoping to make a difference in the world, in my more realistic moments, I wonder if I’m wasting my time. I wrote that I console myself by writing to that one person who is listening and that he/she is worth my efforts. I wasn’t writing to hear back from anyone and certainly wasn’t expecting a response. The OU website does not have a space for comments on their articles and I’ve become accustomed to pressing post, sending an article into the Internet abyss and never knowing how it’s received. Which is why I was shocked when I received about a dozen responses, some from people I knew, but many from people I did not, who searched for my or my husband’s email address in order to respond. Their messages were varied: some wrote they found my articles meaningful, some wrote they didn’t always agree with what I wrote but appreciated the food for thought; by and large, they encouraged me to keep writing.

I was touched by their words but more than that, I was touched they had taken the time to write to me. Because with everyone having such busy lives today, it’s hard to find extra time. And it’s even rarer for people to find that extra time to express notes of appreciation.  

I learned an instructive lesson from these letters. Firstly, what an impact it can make to share something kind. Reading positive letters that were sent to me, made me want to find the good in others and share it with them. Secondly, it taught me a new approach when dealing with cases when I am on the receiving end of attitudes that are far from appreciative. We can’t control how others treat us, but we can control how we react to them. How much do we let negative words and attitudes affect us? Do we choose to allow these people and their negativity to play too much of a role in our lives by allowing them to determine our mood and limit our productivity? Rather than spending the mental energy focusing on the unappreciative people in life, who try to bring us down, wouldn’t it be wiser to spend that time being appreciative of the people in our lives who are supportive and there to uplift us?

Because without great effort, we become the very critical people I described. The ones who can ruin our days by viewing the good things we do as a given and zeroing in on the negative.

There are so many small ways we can learn to become more appreciative people. Take a moment to thank the teacher who put so much care into ensuring your child had a good year- not just with an “End of the Year” gift but with a heartfelt note. You would be surprised how many of those are kept forever and revisited on bad days (I still have the ones I’ve received). Thank the exhausted nurse who does his/her job with care and heart, rather than just viewing each patient as another part of their routine. Share a word of heartfelt appreciation with the Starbucks barista who remembers your name and order and, is able to charge your card while doing three things at once. (I often tell the baristas that they keep the world running: which doctor, politician, teacher or anyone else can exist without their coffee?!). Behind every professional face we encounter is a human heart beating, who is struggling with their day as much as we may be struggling with ours, and our being appreciative can make all the difference to them.

And of course, most of all, we need to express appreciation to those who we take for granted the most, our families. No matter how successful a person can appear, the bulk of self-esteem is received from the home; and yet, as in the example with the Rosh Yeshiva and the janitor, sometimes the home, where a person is loved the most, is where a person’s efforts are taken most for granted. Finding the good and expressing appreciation for what a family member does right, can often incentivize them to do more, rather than (only) complaining about what they don’t do. And lastly, it’s sometimes important to advocate for ourselves and nicely remind our children and spouses (and even our bosses), what we do for them and how hurtful it is when we aren’t appreciated. In a generation where entitlement reigns supreme, people sometimes need this reminder, particularly our kids.

At times, the world can be a hard place. By taking a moment to express a sincere gesture of appreciation, we can brighten someone else’s day immeasurably. And I want to take a moment to thank those who took time out of their day to brighten mine.

Ariela Davis is the Director of Judaics at Addlestone Hebrew Academy and the Rebbetzin of Brith Sholom Beth Israel, the historic shul of downtown Charleston, South Carolina. She writes and speaks about issues related to Israel, the Holocaust and Jewish thought. She can be reached at

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.