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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shemos: An Attitude of Gratitude
An "Egyptian" saved Jethro's daughters. The wild donkey that bit me saved you. The Egyptian I killed brought about your salvation. A person should appreciate and feel gratitude for any benefit he 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 of what he gets. Sometimes a gossiper is rewarded with a treasure. Life can be a sweet and sour experience. If we manage to appreciate all the good we receive, focus on the benefits in life, and try to see the good that came out of the bitings and beatings, we will always live a pleasant and happy life.
In this week's parasha (Shemos 2:11-19), the Torah relates how Moses witnessed an Egyptian smiting a Jew. Moses realized that the Egyptian was about to kill the Jew, and he therefore killed the Egyptian. When Pharaoh found out what had happened, he ordered Moses to be put to death. However, Moses managed to flee to Midian. There he saved Jethro's daughters from some bullying shepherds who taunted them because their father stopped serving idols and started to serve G'd. As Moses sat by the well, he saw what was happening and stepped in to chase the bullies away. When Jethro's daughters came home, he asked them how they managed to come home earlier than usual. They told him that an "Egyptian" saved them from the bullies. This seems a little strange. It is true that Moses was born in Egypt, and he had lived there all his life, but, says the Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 1:32), it is unlikely that Moses would refer to himself as an Egyptian.
The Midrash compares this to a wild donkey who bit a man in his leg. The man ran to a river, where he dunked his aching leg in the cool rushing waters. Just then, he saw a young child drowning in the middle of the river. He stretched out his hand and pulled the child to safety. The child thanked him profusely and said to him "if not for you, I would have surely died." But the man said "it was not I that saved you, but the donkey. If the donkey had not bitten me, I would not have come down to the river to pull you out."
Don't thank me
The same thing happened, says the Midrash, when the daughters of Jethro thanked Moses for saving them from the bullies. Moses said to them: "Don't thank me. The Egyptian that I killed, he was the one who caused that you were saved. Had he not perpetrated his evil act, I would not have run away from Egypt. This, concludes the Midrash, is why the daughters came home and said to Jethro that an Egyptian had saved them.
Irrespective of intentions
This seems very difficult to understand. Why should one give any credit to a wild donkey that bites a man, or an Egyptian that tries to beat a Jew to death? It seems 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 derive a benefit, it is important to be grateful. This even applies to situations where the benefit comes indirectly and from evildoers.
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, after Rachel's death, and tried to bring about that Jacob should make Leah his main wife. 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 (see Torah Attitude, Parashas Vayeishev: The obligation and privilege of showing appreciation, December 22, 2016).
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 everywhere: at home between spouses as well as between parents and children, in the workplace, in a store or in a synagogue. Even though it may be the other person's job, it does not mean that I should not express my appreciation and gratitude.
The Talmud (Berachos 59a) teaches this message in reference to two types of guests, one with gratitude, the other without. The one with gratitude thanks his host for the food and the drinks, and says: "You really went out of your way to serve me and to look after my every need." The one without gratitude says: "that was pretty good, but you would have had to serve your family anyway, so you really did not extend yourself so much to serve me." The guest with gratitude appreciates every detail that has been done for him. The other one minimizes as much as possible what he received.
Why benefit from evil?
However, we still need to understand why G'd would bring a benefit from an evil act. In order to clarify this, we shall analyze another situation. In Parashas Tazria the Torah teaches the various laws of blemishes. The Rambam (Laws of Tzaraas 16:10) writes that these blemishes are not natural phenomena, but Divine punishment for gossiping. They can appear on a person's body, garments, or on his house. 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. 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 all his neighbours would see the infected walls. Furthermore, in some cases, it was necessary to knock down the walls in order to get rid of the blemish.
Treasure behind the walls
The Midrash (ibid 17:4) relates that sometimes when the walls were knocked down something amazing would happen. For 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 wall of a Jewish owned Canaanite house due to the blemish, lo and behold, there were treasures hidden in the walls. The gossiper received both the punishment of having his wall knocked down and the reward of finding buried treasures at the same time. This seems strange. Why would the G'd reward a gossiper with a treasure?
Sweet and sour
Our Sages teach that life is rarely totally black or white. Many times, life can be a "sweet and sour" experience. A gossiper may be punished and have the walls of his house knocked down. At the same time, he is rewarded with a treasure inside the walls because of a merit. Similarly, an evil Egyptian who beat up a Jew, may at another time have done some good. The sages teach 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 appreciated. 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 a person to be instrumental in saving someone else, if he has some merit. Similarly, if he causes harm to someone, he must have a fault. As the Talmud says (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 from the river told the child to give credit to the donkey because he realized that it was the donkey's bite that led him to the child, although it caused him personally a lot of pain. Similarly, Moses told Jethro's daughters to give credit to the Egyptian, for Moses understood that if this Egyptian set in motion the whole chain of events that led him to Midian, he must have some merit.
Recognize good even from bad situations
When we live with such an attitude, we constantly experience countless benefits, and we have plenty to be thankful for (even if those people are acting for their own sake). Without it we may experience life as short, brutish and nasty. Yes, the world can be a difficult and harsh place. We may get bitten or beaten. But sometimes being bitten by a donkey may help us save a child from drowning. In that case, instead of focusing on the pain or the suffering, we must recognize the good that came out of 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, we will always live a pleasant and happy life.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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