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Torah Attitude: Parashas Va’Eira: An attitude of gratitude


Aaron replaced Moses to perform the first three plagues. There is an obligation to care for and show gratitude to inanimate objects. If we fail to be sensitive to the benefits we received from inanimate objects, eventually we will fail to be sensitive to the benefits we receive from our fellow human beings. Just because one pays for a service or item does not take away the obligation to appreciate the service rendered or the item provided. There are two kinds of “visitors” to this world. Every child is obligated to show gratitude to their parents and G’d. This week’s Torah Attitude is that one who lacks sensitivity to express appreciation to inanimate objects will eventually not show appreciation to parents and G’d.

Why Aaron?

In this week’s Torah portion (Shemos 7:19), Moses is instructed by G’d: “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt’ …and they [the waters] shall become blood.” It seems strange why G’d commands Moses to ask Aaron to initiate the first of the ten plagues, turning the water in Egypt into blood. Why did G’d not command Moses to perform this himself?

Aaron performs three plagues

In last week’s portion (Shemos 4:10), after Moses complained to G’d that because of his speech impediment, he was heavy of mouth and heavy of speech, G’d told Moses that Aaron would speak on his behalf to the people. However, G’d expressly told Moses that he would perform the miracles with his staff, as it says: (Shemos 4:17) “And this staff you shall take in your hand, with which you shall perform the signs.” So why did Aaron, and not Moses, take the staff to perform the first plague? And not only did Aaron perform the first plague of blood, he also used the staff to bring about the second plague of frogs (Shemos 8:1) and the third plague of lice (Shemos 8:12). For each of these three plagues, G’d commanded Moses to tell Aaron to stretch out the staff and strike the water and the dust of the land to perform the plagues. Yet for the remaining seven of the ten plagues, Moses was instructed by G’d to bring them about without Aaron’s involvement. So what was so different about the first three plagues that required Aaron’s participation?

The water protects Moses

Rashi quotes from our sages that the reason why Moses could not be the one to bring about the first three plagues was because he had received a personal benefit from the water and the dust. Pharaoh had commanded that every boy who was born at the time of Moses’ birth, be killed by throwing them into the river (Shemos 1:22). Moses’ mother hid him for three months and then placed him in a wicker basket among the reeds of the bank of the Nile River (Shemos 2:3). Rather than killing him, the water actually protected Moses from the fate of the other boys who were drowned in the river, until Moses was taken from the basket by Pharaoh’s daughter. So we see that Moses’ life was saved by the waters of Egypt.

The dust benefits Moses

Similarly, Moses received a great benefit from the dust of Egypt. When Moses grew up he saw an Egyptian man striking a Jewish man. He killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand (Shemos 2:12). Again, we see how the sand, or dust, of Egypt provided a benefit to Moses.

Three questions

This raises a number of questions: (1) Water and dust are inanimate objects. They have no choice whether to provide or withhold benefits. They merely exist and it is the person who utilizes them for a particular benefit. Why should that be a reason for Moses not to perform the plagues that affected the water and dust?; (2) The water and dust have no feelings so what is the purpose not to offend them and to show them gratitude and appreciation?; and (3) In a sense, it is a merit and honour for the water and dust that G’d brings about the first three plagues through them, so why should it be considered an offence to them?

Don’t shame food

Similar questions arise from various Talmudic passages. The Talmud (Eruvin 64b), teaches that if food is found lying about on the ground, one is obligated to put it away. From this the Halachic authorities learn that one must not step on food to avoid putting the food to shame (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 180:4). The Talmud (Bava Kama 92b), quotes a popular saying: “The pit you drank water from, don’t throw a rock into it”. It appears from these teachings that there is an obligation to care for and show gratitude to inanimate objects, such as food and water. Again, the question arises, what is the purpose for this?

Intellect and emotions

The great Mussar thinker, Rabbi Eliyahu Elieser Dessler, explains that a person functions on two levels. On one level, our actions are directed by our intellectual understanding. On the other level, our actions are affected by our emotions and sensitivities. Although in general it is commendable for a person to function on his intellectual understanding rather than his emotional feelings, human nature is constantly affected by feelings. From a purely intellectual point of view, it does not make any sense to show gratitude to an inanimate object. However, if we fail to be sensitive to the benefits we received from inanimate objects, eventually we will fail to be sensitive to the benefits we receive from our fellow human beings.

Gratitude to parents

Rabbi Dessler teaches that the person who fails to recognize his obligations to food and water that sustains him will one day fail to show gratitude to his parents as well. Parents who bring their child into this world do not necessarily do so for totally unselfish reasons. As they care for their child from infancy to adulthood, no doubt they often enjoy tremendous pleasures that their child generates. So if parents have selfish reasons for rearing their child, why should their child show appreciation to them? However, the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 33) explains that every child is obligated to show gratitude to their parents for having brought them into the world. As such, every child should feel obligated to honour and help their parents in anyway possible in appreciation for all their dedication in raising their child. While it is true that parents enjoy raising their child, this does not in any way diminish the child’s obligation to fully appreciate the benefit’s received. Appreciation is not dependent on the parents’ intentions or their difficulties in raising their child. Rather the obligation to feel appreciation comes from the benefit received by the child. The same principle applies in all kinds of relationships: husband and wife, employer and employee, merchant and customer, etc. Just because one pays for a service or item does not take away the obligation to appreciate the service rendered or the item provided. G’d wants to educate us to be generous and to develop a love to give. People who are generous and giving want to reciprocate any goodness and benefit they receive. The fact that providers enjoy doing their jobs and are paid for their services does not change the urge of generous recipients to express their appreciation and at least say “thank you”.

Two guests

Our Sages (Brachos 58a) bring home this message by telling us about two guests: one with the attitude of gratitude, and the other without. The one with gratitude says: “How much bother did the host go through for me. Look how much meat he served me, how much wine he gave me to drink, and how many delicacies he brought me.” The one without gratitude says: “What did the host already do for me? I only ate a little bread and a slice of meat. I drank one cup of wine. He did not really go through much bother for me since this meal was really being served for his family.” The first guest appreciates everything that has been done for him; whereas the second guest minimizes what he has received and focuses on what the host had to do in any case. The Vilna Gaon interprets this passage from the Talmud about the two visitors to refer to two kinds of “visitors” in this world. G’d is the host that created and prepared everything for the benefit of man. The appreciative visitor to this world sees a world that provides him with all his needs from the day he is born throughout his life. He understands that even the difficult tests and challenges he goes through are ultimately for his benefit. He appreciates everything and does not feel anyone owes him anything, neither G’d nor man. On the other hand, the non-appreciative person feels that everything is owing him, and he does not owe anyone even a thank you: “G’d should provide me with whatever I need and want. It does not cost G’d anything to give me what I need and He even enjoys giving so why should I have to thank Him?” As far as his fellow human beings, he imagines that everyone is as selfish as he, and whatever they do they have their own interest in mind.

Parents and G’d

People who show gratitude to their parents and do not cause them pain will also show gratitude to G’d and make an effort not to cause Him pain, and vice versa. As the Talmud says (Kedushin 31a) that when a child causes pain to his parents, G’d declares: “It is good that I did not dwell amongst them. Had I dwelled with them, the child would have caused Me pain as well.”

Importance of gratitude

We can now understand and appreciate that from an intellectual point of view there is no purpose to show gratitude to water and dust. It can even be considered as an honour for these elements to be partners in doing G’d’s will to bring the plagues. Nevertheless, Moses was precluded from performing the first three plagues since he de facto had received a benefit from the water and the dust. Had Moses performed the first three plagues, his involvement would diminish his sensitivity for the benefits he received, and could eventually affect his relationships with his fellow human beings and G’d as well. The Torah teaches us the importance of gratitude and showing appreciation. Even one who lacks sensitivity to express appreciation to inanimate objects will eventually not show appreciation to other people and G’d.

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