We learn in this week’s parsha that Moshe Rabbeinu could not turn the Yam Suf into blood during makkas dam, for, as Rashi explains, “The Yam Suf protected Moshe when he was cast into it [as a baby]. For this reason, he did not bring about the makkos of dam or tzefardei’a, instead, they were done by Aharon” (Rashi, Shemos 7:19).
Moshe was saved by those waters as an infant, when he was placed there in a basket. Out of gratitude to the water, he would not hit the water to set off the makkos of dam and tzefardei’a. The Gemara derives from this that a person should not cast stones into a well from which he drank.
Likewise, Moshe Rabbeinu did not strike the ground to bring forth lice during the plague of kinnim, because, as Rashi explains, the dirt “protected him when he killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand” (Rashi, Shemos 8:12).
Although dirt and water have no feelings or bechirah, Moshe showed appreciation for the benefits he received from them. Because hakoras hatov is not about the benefactor, it’s about you, the recipient. Do you appreciate the daily goodness out there? Do you appreciate everyone who has helped you get where you are, or do you ignore the little people and the things from which you benefit?
Our heart rates quicken as we learn with excitement of the punishments Hashem rained upon the evil Mitzrim, but, at the same time, there are lessons there right under the surface for us to study and lead our lives by.
Our world is plagued by people who treat others like peels. As long as they need them, they keep them well-protected and refrigerated. Once done with them, they throw them into the nearest garbage pail and seek out another fruit to peel and benefit from.
We must recognize that people are not objects that you use to the maximum and then, when you think you have gotten everything you can, you trash them, forget about them, ignore their calls, don’t say good Shabbos to them, and move on to the next person you can squeeze dry before eventually dumping him. It doesn’t matter if you are a rabbi or a baal habayis, a fundraiser or a person who just got engaged. Never think you’re done with someone or don’t need them anymore. Always remember what they did for you when you needed them.
If we are cognizant and notice everything that goes on around us, we are better people. Moshe Rabbeinu didn’t refrain from hitting the water and sand out of concern that he would, in some way, be hurting the water, an innate, inanimate object, but, rather, because he would be hurting himself. Though water has no feelings, Moshe knew that he does, so how could he possibly act disrespectfully to something that helped him?
Bilam had no problem doing so when he hit his loyal donkey. At the time of creation, the animal was given the gift of speech so that it could berate Bilam for smiting the beast of burden. And what did the animal say? It gave Bilam mussar: “After all I’ve done for you, how dare you hit me!”
An animal is a creature whose entire being was created to serve man, yet it has a right to complain when a person beats it. A person who presents himself as intelligent and close to G-d must behave with kindness and compassion to others, and to do so, he must be the type of person whose refined character is fashioned through appreciation of what others do for him. Not doing so earned Bilam the ire of his donkey and eternal derision.
Last week, an all-too-rare instance occurred when a good man was exonerated. After much Justice Department and media hype, the jail sentence of Uri Lupoliansky, former mayor of Yerushalayim, was commuted. The founder of Yad Sarah, Israel’s largest medical equipment gemach, Lupoliansky is a hero to many. His selfless acts on behalf of all the residents of Israel had been called into question thanks to an alleged association with a corrupt land deal begun by his predecessor, Ehud Olmert. With the successful appeal, friends shared tales of the former mayor in his good old days.
A friend of mine, Shlomo Kook, shared an article he wrote recalling the time Lupoliansky went to invite Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv to his son’s bar mitzvah. It was more out of a sense of courtesy and respect, for the senior posek was recuperating from serious surgery and was extremely weak. He had not left his home for some time and missed many family simchos.
When Lupoliansky departed, Rav Elyashiv informed his family and attendants that he would be going to the bar mitzvah celebration. “But how can you?” they argued. “The rebbe doesn’t go anywhere, and besides, Uri is not even expecting the rebbe to come.”
Rav Elyashiv pointed to various devices in the room. “The bed is from Yad Sarah. The walker is from Yad Sarah. That monitor is from Yad Sarah. I have benefitted so much from them. I’m mechuyov in hakoras hatov to Reb Uri. How can I not go?”
“But he benefited from you much more than you benefitted from him,” Rav Elyashiv’s relatives responded. “After all, because of your support, he became the mayor of Yerushalayim.”
Rav Elyashiv taught them a lesson. He said, “You’ll argue that he doesn’t need me to come. I agree that he’s mevater. But hakoras hatov isn’t remuneration, tashlumin, that you pay someone for a favor they did for you. Hakoras hatov is a never-ending obligation, because the Ribbono Shel Olam wants us to be people who always remember that everything is a gift. Hakoras hatov is an opportunity and a means of keeping our value system intact. It is not about him. It is about me.”
Developing the middah of hakoras hatov is essential to our growth. It is so easy to take others for granted. Great people remember the little things. We are placed in this world to achieve greatness. It starts with the little things. Appreciate even what simple people do for you. Always be courteous and you will grow. It is not for nothing that if you look up the word appreciate in a thesaurus, you will see that included in its synonyms are gain, grow and rise.
The posuk in Mishlei (27:21) speaks of the gauges used for precious metals. A refining pot is for silver and a furnace is for gold. And what of man? The posuk concludes, “And a man according to his praise.”
Rav Elya Lopian explained that when a silversmith appraises the value of silver, he uses a refiner to see how pure it is. The measure of a man’s purity is seen in “mehalelo,” which literally means praise. The best indicator of a refined nature is a person’s ability to give thanks and praise.
Rav Chaim Shmaryohu Dardak, a Bnei Brak resident, was close with the Steipler Gaon. His son, Rav Yaakov lived in America and was also helpful to the Steipler.
One day, the son wrote a letter with a question pertaining to a chapter in the Steipler’s sefer, Kehillos Yaakov. Although the Steipler was old and no longer responding to letters, he toiled over his response to the young man, reviewing the questions and answering each one, adding another chiddush. When he was done, he gave the letter to the senior Rav Dardak to send to his son in America.
A few days later, there was a knock at Rav Dardak’s door. It was the Steipler himself.
“Did you already send the letter?” the Steipler asked breathlessly.
“No, not yet,” the father answered.
“Boruch Hashem. I rewrote it. Please use this one,” said the Steipler.
The father accepted the paper and went to replace it in the envelope he had prepared to send to his son when he would find someone traveling to America. He compared the two letters and noted that they were the same length and appeared similar.
Bewildered, he hurried to the Steipler’s home. “Yelamdeinu rabbeinu. Why was a new letter necessary if there were no changes?”
The Steipler explained, “I don’t write letters anymore, as you know. I no longer have the strength or energy to respond to people in writing, but when your son wrote, I knew that I would make an exception. After all, I reasoned, how can I ignore someone who helped me so much? Where’s the yosher in that? So I sat down and wrote a letter, which I gave to you.
“Then,” the Steipler continued, “a few days passed and I reconsidered. Should I have written out of a sense of duty? Out of obligation? No! The correct attitude should have been hakoras hatov, appreciation towards a person who helped me. So I felt like I had to rewrite the letter, allowing feelings of hakoras hatov to guide me. The content of the two letters is the same, but the second one is totally different from the first!”
The recipient would likely not have discerned the difference between the two letters, but the Steipler was teaching that hakoras hatov is about us, our internal avodas hamiddos and spiritual balance.
Perhaps we can understand why this lesson is taught in Parshas Va’eira, at the formative stage in which the family of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov becomes the Am Hashem. Rav Chaim Vital in Shaarei Kedushah (perek 1) famously writes that there is no Biblical mandate to have good middos, but proper middos are a prerequisite to receiving the Torah. It’s the hakdomah to the Torah. These parshiyos at the beginning of Sefer Shemos lead up to the parshiyos of kabbolas haTorah. A nation destined to receive the gift of Torah had to first develop proper middos.
Throughout the story of the servitude in Mitzrayim, we see chapters that indicate this, including the nobility of spirit of the wives who endured oppressive days, but would lift the spirits of their husbands at night. We note the selflessness and sacrifice of the shotrim, who accepted beatings on behalf of other Jews. We study the chesed performed by the mother and sister of Moshe Rabbeinu, spiting Paroh to help newborns and their mothers. And as the makkos come, Moshe teaches another lesson.
There was no one better to teach that lesson than he, the onov mikol odom, the most humble of all men, who understood that everything is a gift. It’s the ba’al ga’avah who refuses to recognize how beholden he is to those around him, for his arrogance precludes him from seeing the truth.
A rosh yeshiva once noticed a married talmid waiting on a street-corner outside his yeshiva, clearly agitated. “Let me guess,” the rosh yeshiva said. “You’re waiting here for your wife to pick you up and she’s late.”
The fellow nodded. “Exactly.”
“You’re cold and hungry and just learned a full first seder and you don’t want to wait. You’re wondering why she can’t just be on time, right?”
The yungerman blushed and admitted that, yes, those were his thoughts.
“Now, here is what I want you to do,” the rosh yeshiva said. “Until your wife comes, contemplate how much you owe her, how much hakoras hatov she deserves, how she married you and takes care of you, and how she raises your children and encourages you and respects you. Don’t think about anything else and you’ll see that when she comes, you will feel it – and she will feel that you feel it!”
Rav Avigdor Miller said many years ago that along with everything else, thankfulness is a segulah for good health and long life. Life is too short to be spent angry, insulted or resentful about perceived wrongs. Training yourself to see the chassodim all around opens one up to new avenues of happiness.
Science is catching up to Rabbi Miller. This week, The New York Times reported: “Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, who studies the ‘science of gratitude,’ argues that it leads to a stronger immune system and lower blood pressure, as well as ‘more joy and pleasure.’”
But don’t depend on scientists to arrive at proper hakoras hatov.
The article continues: “Consider this, from a yoga instructor on CNN.com: ‘Cultivate your sense of gratitude by incorporating giving thanks into a personal morning ritual such as writing in a gratitude journal, repeating an affirmation or practicing a meditation. It could even be as simple as writing what you give thanks for on a sticky note and posting it on your mirror or computer. To help you establish a daily routine, create a ‘thankfulness’ reminder on your phone or computer to pop up every morning and prompt you.
“The Harvard Mental Health Letter begins its list of gratitude interventions with the advice that you should send a thank-you letter as often as once a month, but all the other suggested exercises can be undertaken without human contact: ‘thank someone mentally,’ ‘keep a gratitude journal,’ ‘count your blessings,’ ‘meditate,’ and, for those who are so inclined, ‘pray.’”
The columnist makes the point that it is “possible to achieve the recommended levels of gratitude without spending a penny or uttering a word. All you have to do is to generate, within yourself, the good feelings associated with gratitude, and then bask in its warm, comforting glow. If there is any loving involved in this, it is self-love.”
Perhaps chochmah bagoyim taamin, but not middos. Even when they preach and teach about basic human values, it is not to enhance others, or the world at large, but rather to make yourself feel better. Hey, you want to feel good? You want to live long? The solution is simple: Have gratitude. Keep a journal. Write an entry and, voila, you become a grateful person and bask in the glow of gratitude. You can be a kofui tov and be grateful. Gratitude is merely something cuddly that selfish people can use to feel good about themselves.
Gratefulness has nothing at all to do with hakoras hatov.
Moshe Rabbeinu was engaged in a battle with Paroh, the ultimate kofui tov. The savior of Mitzrayim and its economy was Yosef, but the king claimed that he didn’t know who Yosef was, lest the memory obligate him to something (Shemos 1:8).
The awareness that we give ourselves through being makir tov is to enable us to learn to see, recognize and perceive the truth. It is the secret to having emunah. Paroh was a kofer and Moshe was a ma’amin.
We are still living in difficult times. There are painful reports from all over, so many suffering families and individuals, so many victims of all sorts.
It’s easy to fall into the rut of negativity, to complain and whine.
Life is rough. Parnassah doesn’t come easy. Chinuch has never been harder.
Moshe Rabbeinu teaches us how to achieve geulah and how to develop emunah.
Look deeper. See the people around you. See how everyone is trying their best. See how much chessed the Ribbono Shel Olam fills His world with wherever you are.
There is a new awareness of the need to show hakoras hatov to rabbeim, which began with a duet of speeches delivered by Rabbi David Ozeri. This past Motzoei Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Mandelbaum announced at the dinner of his school, Yeshiva Orchos Chaim in Lakewood, NJ, that the rabbeim of his mosad would be receiving a $10,000 raise.
This is commendable. Rabbeim and moros are the foundation of our chinuch system. For too long, they have been taken for granted. The time arrived a long time ago for mechanchim to be paid a living wage. Their work needs to be appreciated. Besides, if we want our children to be educated well, we have to ensure that their teachers are motivated and not barely floating along on the poverty level. Why should anyone capable go into a field in which they cannot properly feed and clothe their children?
When we finish establishing a system to help the rabbeim, we must work to ensure that parents, who are already overtaxed with all the expenses of living in today’s age, including paying tuition, should not be driven further to despair. Our society is beset by many problems, and the root of them is very often financial. People who work for a living simply cannot make ends meet. Between tuition, taxes, food, insurance, clothing and mortgage or rent, many are forced to resort to a never-ending cycle of loans in order to live with a drop of dignity.
We can’t solve all the world’s problems, and certainly not in one shot, but we need to acknowledge them and seek realistic solutions while being aware of the laws of unintended consequences. For ourselves and for our society, remember that people aren’t fruit peels.