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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shemos: An Attitude of Gratitude


The Egyptian saved Jethro’s daughters. Say thanks to the wild donkey that bit me. Say thanks to the Egyptian I killed. Rewarding a speaker of gossip with treasure. Life can be a sweet and sour experience. Try to recognize the good, even from bad situations.

This week’s Torah Attitude is that we should be grateful to anyone who benefits us, even if the benefactor had no good intention and did evil.

The Egyptian

In this week's Torah portion, Moses witnesses an Egyptian dealing deadly blows to a Jew. In order to save the Jew, Moses kills the Egyptian. When Pharaoh finds out, he orders that Moses be put to death. Moses flees Egypt in a hurry and ends up in Midyan. There he saves the daughters of Jethro from the bullying shepherds of Midyan. The daughters are constantly taunted because their father has stopped bowing down to idols and has started serving G’d. Moses sees what is happening and steps in to chase the bullies away. When the daughters come home, Jethro questions them as to why they have returned earlier than usual. They tell him that an "Egyptian" saved them from the bullies. Now while it is true that Moses had spent many years in Egypt, our Sages tell us that it is unlikely that Moses would refer to himself as an Egyptian. Rather, our Sages teach us that there is an important lesson of gratitude to be learned from this reference to the "Egyptian".

Wild Donkey

But first, we change scenes to the Midrash where a man has just been bitten in the leg by a wild donkey. To relieve his pain, the man rushes over to a river where he dunks his aching leg in the cool rushing waters. Just then, the man sees a young child drowning in the raging torrents. The man stretches out his hand and pulls the child to safety. The child thanks the man profusely and tells him that "if not for you, I would have surely died." The man corrects the child and says "it was not I that saved you, but the donkey. If the donkey had not bitten me, I would not have had the opportunity to pull you from the river."

Don’t thank me

Back to Jethro's daughters: the Sages tell us that when the daughters of Jethro thanked Moses for saving them from the bullying shepherds, he responded: "Don't thank me. Thank the Egyptian that I killed. If he did not perpetrate his evil act, I would not have run away from Egypt. So thank the Egyptian, not just me."

Irrespective of intentions

But does this make any sense? Is it not strange to suggest that we should thank a wild donkey that bites a man, or an Egyptian that tries to beat a Jew to death? Why should the donkey or the Egyptian get any credit for their misdeeds? Is it not contradictory to give praise for an evil or harmful act? In order to understand this we must differentiate between the actual act that took place and the benefit derived from this act. The Torah does not propose to give credit for a misdeed or to praise a harmful or evil act. However, if we receive a benefit from any person or thing, it is important to be grateful to that person or thing. This even applies to situations where the benefit comes indirectly and from evildoers. The Torah approach is that a person should appreciate and feel gratitude for any benefit received, irrespective of the intentions of the one bringing about the benefit.

People around us

How much more should we appreciate and express our gratitude for the countless benefits we receive daily from the people around us. Rather than take things for granted, we should be thankful. This applies both at home between spouses and between parents and children, as well as in the workplace. Even though it may be the other person’s job, it does not mean that I should not express my appreciation and gratitude.

Two guests

Our Sages (Brachos 59a) bring home this message by telling us about two guests: one with the attitude of gratitude, and the other without. The one with gratitude thanks his host for a lovely meal: "thank you so much for the food and the drink. You really went out of your way to serve me and to please me." The one without gratitude says to his host: "thank you for the food but you would have had to serve your family anyway, so you really did not go to much bother to feed me as well." The guest with gratitude appreciates everything that has been done for him. The guest without gratitude minimizes the benefit of what he has received.

Treasure behind the walls

We still need to clarify why G’d would bring about a benefit from an evil act. Before trying to understand this apparent difficulty, let us look at one more situation. In the Torah, a person who spoke badly about another may be punished with "leprosy" on the walls of his house. This could be very embarrassing to the speaker if his neighbours found out about the infected walls. Furthermore, in some cases, it was necessary to knock down the walls in order to get rid of the "leprosy". Now when the Jewish people entered the land of Israel, some took possession of houses that had been abandoned by the Canaanites. When it was necessary to knock down a Jewish owned Canaanite house due to “leprosy”, lo and behold, there were treasures hidden in the walls. The speaker of gossip received both the punishment of having his house knocked down and the reward of finding buried treasures at the same time. Why would the Master of the Universe reward a gossiper with treasure?

Sweet and sour

The Sages teach us that rarely is life totally black or totally white. Many times, life can be a "sweet and sour" experience. A speaker of gossip may be punished by having the walls of his house knocked down, while being rewarded with the treasure inside the walls because even one who speaks evil about others may have some merit for which he is entitled to receive a reward. Similarly, even a wild donkey that bites, or an evil Egyptian who beats, may have done some good with their lives. The sages teach us that there are no accidents or coincidences in life. If something bad leads to something good, then the evildoer has some merit that deserves to be rewarded. Similarly, when something good leads to something bad, the one who did good must have some fault that needs to be corrected. If G’d chose them to be instruments in saving someone they must have some merit. Similarly, to do harm to someone they must have a fault. As it says in the Talmud (Shabbos 32A), G’d brings something good through a person who has a merit, and something bad through a person who has a fault.

Benefit from pain and suffering

The man who saved the child taught the child to give credit to the donkey because he appreciated the act that led him to the child, even though it was very painful at first. Moses told Jethro’s daughters to give credit to the Egyptian for saving them because the Egyptian set in motion the whole chain of events which led Moses to Jethro's land, Midyan.

Recognize good even from bad situations

With an attitude of gratitude, we see a world full of people and things that give us countless benefits and we are thankful (even if those people or things are acting for their own sake). Those who do not maintain an attitude of gratitude see a life that is short, brutish and nasty. Yes, the world can be a nasty place. Sure we can get bitten or beaten. But sometimes being bitten by a donkey may help us save a person from drowning. In that case, instead of focusing on the pain or the suffering, one must recognize the good that came out from a bad situation. The world can be seen in many different ways. If we appreciate all the good around us, and focus on the benefits of life, trying to extract the good from the bitings and beatings, we will live a much more pleasant and happy life.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel