From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
“Gratitude is an attitude,” some wise man must have surely said once upon a time. In this week’s parashah, the Torah demonstrates to what lengths Jewish tradition teaches us to be grateful and to remember our benefactors.
Seven of the ten plagues occur in this week’s reading. Moshe, the messenger of G‑d, is busy bringing down these terrifying plagues on Pharaoh’s Egypt. Yet, interestingly, he calls upon his brother, Aharon, to be the agent for the first three plagues—blood, frogs, and lice. Why did Moshe not do it himself, as he would do the others?
The Midrash, quoted by Rashi, teaches us the reason. It was through the agency of the river’s waters that Moshe was saved as an infant, when he was put in the basket. It would have been insensitive and, therefore, inappropriate for him to strike those very life-saving waters in order to bring on the plague. Seeing as the plagues of blood and frogs both dealt directly with the water, it was Aharon who struck the water rather than Moshe. Similarly with the third plague, lice. The lice came from the ground, and the earth, too, had helped Moshe to cover the body of the Egyptian taskmaster he had killed defending the Jewish slave. Therefore, it would have been wrong for Moshe to strike the earth, and so for this plague, too, Aharon was the agent.
What a monumental lesson to each of us on the importance of gratitude. First, do water and earth have feelings? Would they know the difference if they were struck and who was doing the striking? How much more so should we be considerate of human beings, who do have feelings, when they have done us a kindness. How scrupulous we ought to be not to offend people, especially those who have come to our assistance.
Second, Moshe was 80 years old at the time of the plagues. The incident with the water occurred when he was a mere infant, and with the earth when he was a very young man. Yet, all these years later, he is still sensitive not to strike the objects that had helped him. He did not say, as so many have after him, “So what have you done for me lately?” There are a number of theories as to why human beings seem to have this psychological need to tarnish the image of their past benefactors. Perhaps it is because we are inherently uncomfortable with the notion of being eternally indebted to anyone. It cramps our style and diminishes our independence. So if we find fault with those who have helped us previously, we absolve ourselves of any moral indebtedness. Now we’re even. I don’t owe you anything anymore.
The story is told of the Chasam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, 1732–1839) that he once did an enormous favor for someone. Later, the fellow asked him, “Rabbi, what can I ever do to repay you for your kindness?” The Chasam Sofer replied, “One day, when you get angry with me, please remember what I have done for you today, and rather than pelting me with big stones, please throw small stones instead.” How sad, but oh so true. In a similar vein, I remember hearing my own zayde say of someone, “Why does he hate me so much? I never did him any favors!”
This little story of Moshe, which is only an aside to the main body of the biblical narrative, teaches us to remember the kindnesses that are bestowed, both when they happen and forever. If one who has been good to us in the past does wrong and needs chastising, let someone else volunteer for the job. The person may need rebuking, but we should not be the ones to do it. Yet again, the Torah teaches us not only religious ritual but how to be better people, more sensitive, and, yes, eternally grateful human beings.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.