Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Parsha Va'eira: How Far Do We Take Gratitude?

This week's Torah portion begins the story of the Ten Plagues that G-d inflicted upon Egypt. The first of these plagues is turning the Nile River into blood (Exodus 7:17-21), and the second is that of the plague of frogs (Exodus 8). Looking at these passages, it made me wonder: why is it that Aaron was responsible for the task of engendering the first and second plagues? Why was Moses not the one to do so?

Rashi cited a Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 9:10) that reveals that because the river had protected Moses in his infancy (Exodus 2:3), Moses' smiting of the water would not have been appropriate. This brings up another question: why should Moses have been thankful for a river? After all, a river is an inanimate object. It possesses no free will of its own. What sort of lessons regarding gratitude are we supposed to derive from this passage?

  1. It is irrelevant that a river is an inanimate object without free will. The river provided the necessary buoyancy and currents to bring Moses to safety. We should be grateful for all the good in our lives, even if they are inanimate objects without free will. Two stories, courtesy of Alan Morinis (Everday Holiness, p. 65), exemplify this concept:
    • When Rabbi Menachem Mendel, better known as the Kotzker Rebbe, was ready to replace a pair of shoes because they had been worn out, he would first neatly wrap the shoes in newspaper because his thought process was "How could I just chuck a pair of shoes that have served me so well for so long?"
    • After praying, R. Eliyahu Lopian was folding up his tallit (prayer shawl), and he had to rest it on the bench in order to fold it. He realized the bench was dusty, and he subsequently retrieved a towel so that he could dust off the bench. The student to which he was talking was going to do the task, but R. Lopian stopped him and said that he had to clean it himself because he "had to show gratitude for the bench upon which he folded his tallit. 
  2. If we are to be grateful for inanimate objects without free will, then the a fortiori inference (קל וחומר) that we can make is that we should be all the more thankful for the kindness other human beings have shown us. And to take the inference a step further, if we are thankful for the goodness that humans provides, all the more so we should be thankful for G-d and His wonders.
  3. Gratitude is strongly based on the ideas of remembrance and awareness. Keep in mind that Moses was eighty years old at this juncture (Exodus 7:7), so the action meriting the gratitude happened "a lifetime ago." We are to learn that there is no expiration date for being grateful for another's kindness. The Sefer haChinuch (Mitzvah 33) teaches us that the commandment of "honoring your father and mother" entails expressing gratitude to our parents for bringing us into the world. This is in contrast with the Egyptians, who managed to forget Joseph's contributions to Egyptian society within a generation (Exodus 1:8). We can go back even further with the chief butler who was freed with Joseph's help. What did the butler do? He didn't help free Joseph in return. Instead, he "did not remember him, and forgot him (Genesis 40:23)." Although this passage might seem like a redundancy (i.e., not remembering=forgetting), it is not the case because gratitude involves active remembrance, and without that active part [of remembering], one passively forgets the kindness previously received.
  4. Gratitude is about specificity. We can say broad statements like "I'm thankful to be alive" or "I have all that I need." But to truly appreciate the good in your life, you need to be specific. Moses did not simply realize "I have good things in my life," but went deeper and said "This river saved my life, and I thusly should respect it." If you're going to do something like a gratitude journal or some other expression of gratitude, don't just say "I have a nice family." Expound upon it. Give examples and go into depth as to why.
Moses' abstention from the first two plagues provides us with an idea as to how long we should be thankful, as well as the extent and magnitude of the gratitude we should express. By using Moses' example, we can better learn how to fill our lives with gratitude.

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