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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, it 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.

Moses and Aaron

In this week's parasha, the Torah relates how G'd instructs Moses and tells him (Shemos 7:19): "Say to Aaron, 'Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt' …and they [the waters] shall become blood."

Why Aaron?

In last week's parasha (Shemos 4:10) we find that Moses asked G'd to appoint someone else due to his speech impediment. G'd responded that Aaron should speak on his behalf to the people. However, G'd expressly told Moses that he should 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 G'd instruct that Aaron should take the staff to perform the first plague? As a matter of fact, Aaron did not only perform the first plague of blood, he also used the staff to bring about the second plague of frogs (see Shemos 8:1) and the third plague of lice (see Shemos 8:12). G'd specifically instructed Moses to tell Aaron to stretch out the staff and strike the water and the dust of the land to perform these plagues. Yet for the remaining seven plagues, G'd instructed Moses to bring them about without Aaron's involvement. So why did the first three plagues require Aaron's participation?

The water protects Moses

Rashi quotes from our sages that Moses could not be involved in the first three plagues 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, should be thrown into the Nile and killed (Shemos 1:22). Moses' mother hid him for three months and then placed him in a wicker basket among the reeds in the Nile River (Shemos 2:3). Rather than killing him, the water actually protected Moses until he was saved by Pharaoh's daughter.

The dust benefits Moses

Similarly, Moses had a great benefit from the dust of Egypt. When Moses saw an Egyptian striking a Jewish man, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand (Shemos 2:12). Due to these benefits, it would have been most ungrateful of Moses, if he had been the one to strike the water and dust.

Three questions

However, 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 would Moses be considered ungrateful if he was the one to perform the plagues that affected the water and dust?; (2) The water and dust have no feelings, so what does it mean that one should be careful not to offend them but to show them gratitude and appreciation?; and (3) In a sense, it was a merit and honour for the water and dust that G'd brought 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 it 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 reason and purpose for this?

Intellect and emotions

The great Mussar authority, 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 that a person functions 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 pleasure from this child. 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 all children are 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 any way 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 benefits 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 the child receives.

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, it does not take away from 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

The Talmud (Berachos 58a) brings home this message by telling us about two guests: one with the attitude of gratitude, and one 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 in any case he needed to prepare this meal 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 even if he had not been there.

The Vilna Gaon explains that this passage from the Talmud refers 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 was 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 to him, and he does not owe anyone even a thank you. He thinks to himself: "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. The Talmud states (Kedushin 31a) that when a child causes pain to his parents, G'd declares: "It is good that I am not dwelling amongst them. Had I dwelled with them, the child would have caused Me pain as well."

Importance of gratitude

We can now answer our questions. It is true 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 these plagues, his involvement would diminish his sensitivity for the benefits he received. This could eventually affect his relationships with his fellow human beings, and G'd as well. The Torah teaches us the importance of gratitude and to what extent one must show appreciation. For the person who lacks sensitivity to express appreciation to inanimate objects may also neglect to show appreciation to other people and to G'd.

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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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel