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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shemos: An Attitude of Gratitude

December 23, 2007


The Egyptian saved Jethro’s daughters. The wild donkey that bit me saved you. The Egyptian I killed caused your salvation. A person should appreciate and feel gratitude for any benefit received, irrespective of the intentions of the one bringing about the benefit. We should appreciate and express our gratitude for the countless benefits we receive daily from people around us. The guest with gratitude appreciates every detail that has been done for him. Sometimes a gossiper is rewarded with a treasure. Life can be a sweet and sour experience. If we manage to 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 always live a pleasant and happy life.

The Egyptian

In this week's portion (Shemos 2:11-19), the Torah relates how Moses witnessed an Egyptian dealing deadly blows to a Jew. In order to save the Jew, Moses killed the Egyptian. When Pharaoh found out, he ordered that Moses be put to death. However, Moses managed to flee and ended up in Midyan. There he saved the daughters of Jethro from the bullying shepherds of Midyan. The daughters had been taunted every time they came to water their sheep, because their father stopped bowing down to idols and started serving G’d. As Moses sat by the well he saw what was happening and stepped in to chase the bullies away. When the daughters came home, Jethro questioned them as to why they returned earlier than usual. They told him that an "Egyptian" saved them from the bullies. Now while it is true that Moses had spent many years in Egypt, the Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 1:32) points out that it is unlikely that Moses would refer to himself as an Egyptian. Rather, says the Midrash, there is a hidden and important lesson of appreciation to be learned from this reference to the "Egyptian".

Wild Donkey

The Midrash compares this to a man who was just bitten in the leg by a wild donkey. To relieve his pain, the man rushed over to a river where he dunked his aching leg in the cool rushing waters. Just then, the man saw a young child drowning in the raging torrents. The man stretched out his hand and pulled the child to safety. The child thanked the man profusely and said to him "if not for you, I would have surely died." But the man corrected the child and said "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

The same thing happened, says the Midrash, when the daughters of Jethro thanked Moses for saving them from the bullying shepherds. Moses responded and said to them: "Don't thank me. The Egyptian that I killed, he was the one who caused that you were saved. If he did not perpetrate his evil act, I would not have run away from Egypt. This is why the daughters came home and said to Jethro that an Egyptian had saved them.

Irrespective of intentions

This does not seem to make any sense. How can anyone suggest that one should attribute any salvation to 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.

Reuben felt obligated

This is what prompted Reuben to save Joseph when the other brothers planned to kill him. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 84:15) explains that Reuben had been nervous ever since he mixed into his father’s affairs and tried to bring about that Jacob should make Leah his main wife after Rachel’s death. He immediately realized that he had made a major mistake, and was concerned that he would lose his status as one of the twelve tribes. When Joseph revealed his dreams he spoke about all twelve brothers and clearly included Reuben. Said Reuben, “He included me as one of the twelve tribes and I should not save him?” Obviously, Joseph had his own agenda with his dreams. He definitely did not intend to get involved in deciding whether Reuben was worthy to remain as one of the twelve tribes or not. However, Reuben received a benefit through Joseph’s dreams and therefore felt obligated to save him from certain death.

People around us

If this is what the Torah expects of us for unintended benefits, how much more should we appreciate and express our gratitude for the countless of benefits we receive daily from people around us. Rather than take things for granted, we should be appreciative and 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

The Talmud (Berachos 59a) brings this message home in reference to two types of guests: one with the attitude of gratitude, and the other without. The one with gratitude expresses his thanks to the host for the lovely meal and says: "thank you so much for the food and the drink. You really went out of your way to serve me and to look after my every need." The one without gratitude says to his host: "that was pretty good but you would have had to serve your family anyway, so you really did not extend yourself too much to serve me as well." The guest with gratitude appreciates every detail that has been done for him. The other one minimizes as much as possible what he has received.

Why benefit from evil?

However, we still need to clarify why G’d would bring about a benefit from an evil act. In order to understand this apparent difficulty, we must analyze yet another situation. In Parashas Tazria the Torah teaches the various laws of blemishes. These blemishes are spiritual kinds of “leprosy” and can appear on a person’s body and garments, as well as on his house. The Rambam (Laws of Tzaraas 16:10) writes that these blemishes are not natural phenomena, but a Divine sign to warn people against gossiping. Initially, says the Rambam, such a blemish would appear on the house of the gossiper. If this did not help it would appear on his garments. And as a last resort, it would appear on his body. Even if the blemishes would just appear on the house, it would be most embarrassing to the gossiper, as no doubt all his neighbours would find 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".

Treasure behind the walls

The Midrash (ibid 17:4) tells us that sometimes when the walls were knocked down something amazing would happen. The Midrash relates that when the Jewish people entered the land of Israel, many took possession of houses that had been abandoned by the Canaanites. Now when it became necessary to knock down a Jewish owned Canaanite house due to “leprosy”, lo and behold, there were treasures hidden in the walls. The gossiper 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 a treasure?

Sweet and sour

The Sages teach us that rarely is life totally black or white. Many times, life can be a "sweet and sour" experience. A gossiper may be punished by having the walls of his house knocked down, while being rewarded with the treasure inside the walls because this person may have some merit for which he is entitled to receive a reward. Similarly, a wild donkey that has bitten someone, or an evil Egyptian who just beat another person, may at another time have done some good. The sages teach us that there are no accidents or coincidences in life. If something bad leads to something good, then the evildoer must have 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. G’d will only choose someone to be instrumental in saving someone else if they have some merit. Similarly, if they cause 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 himself appreciated the act that led him to the child, even though it was very painful at first. Similarly, Moses told Jethro’s daughters to give credit to the Egyptian for saving them. Moses understood that if this Egyptian set in motion the whole chain of events that led him to Midyan he must have some merit.

Recognize good even from bad situations

With such an attitude of gratitude, we experience a world full of people that give us countless benefits and we have plenty of reason to be thankful (even if those people are acting for their own sake). Those who do not maintain this kind of attitude go through a life that is short, brutish and nasty. Yes, the world can be a harsh and nasty place. We may 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, we must recognize the good that came out from a bad situation. The world can be seen in many different ways. If we manage to 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 always live a 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.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel