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GRATITUDE IS AN ATTITUDE

by Yoel Feiler    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

And Hashem said to Moses, 'Say to Aaron, take your staff and stretch out your hand'" (Exodus 7:19).

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And Hashem said to Moses, 'Say to Aaron, take your staff and stretch out your hand'" (Exodus 7:19).

In this week's Torah portion, Hashem instructed Aaron to initiate the first three plagues by striking the Nile River or the ground. He changed the water in Egypt to blood by striking the Nile River with Moses' staff. He later struck the water to bring up a swarm of frogs upon the Egyptians. He also initiated the third plague of lice by striking the Egyptian soil. Our sages attribute Aaron's designation to the fact that both the river and the earth protected Moses. As an infant, Moses was placed in the river to be concealed from the Egyptians and the river delivered him into the hands of Pharaoh's daughter. The river not only saved his life, it also delivered him into the king's palace to grow up in the lap of luxury.

After Moses grew up, he ventured out among the people. He saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Jewish slave. He rose up to defend the slave, killed the Egyptian, and buried him in the ground. The ground was used to cover and hide the body of the Egyptian, allowing Moses to escape with his life from the authorities. In order to show his gratitude to the earth, Moses could not strike the land to produce a plague. Essentially, the idea here is that Moses benefited from two inanimate objects; therefore, he must demonstrate his gratitude. This was Moses' way of showing gratitude to the river and the earth.

However, this demonstration seems to be excessive. It is true that the middah (attribute) of hakarat hatov (appreciating the good that is done to you), is one of the mainstays of character development. However, is it necessary to show gratitude to an inanimate object? After all, the water or earth do not have feelings and are not sensitive to a lack of gratitude.

One idea is that in the area of hakarat hatov, the beneficiary should not make calculations to appraise the actual amount of effort his benefactor has exerted in order to estimate how much gratitude he owes. How much was the benefactor put out by his favor? Did he have to do it anyway? Was he not going my way anyway? It did not really cost him that much, etc. and so many more excuses that we may use to justify not repaying a favor, not demonstrating gratitude where it is due. Quite possibly, once we start with such calculations, we might negate the whole concept of hakarat hatov.

This, in fact, is the lesson we learn from Moses. If Hashem insisted that Moses demonstrate his sense of gratitude, even to an inanimate object, how much more so must we show our appreciation to human beings. Furthermore, we must also think of the gratitude we owe Hashem, the source of all good. Our concern should not be from whom we have received a favor, or the value of that favor. Rather, our first and only consideration should be that we have benefited and we should show our gratitude.

A similar idea is found in a custom that takes place at the meals on Shabbat and festivals. Before one recites the kiddush over a cup of wine, one is required to cover the loaves of bread. This is done because, traditionally, bread has a higher status than wine does. However, the wine or grape juice is raised to a higher level by using it for kiddush, to sanctify the holiness of the day. Nevertheless, we are instructed to cover the loaves in order not to "embarrass" them. Once again, the loaves are inanimate objects that do not have feelings and cannot be embarrassed, so why do we cover them? The idea is not that we must be concerned about the loaves, rather it is to teach and sensitize us to the concept of not embarrassing others.

A story is told about two families. Let us refer to them as the families of Reuven and Shimon. One Friday night, Shimon's family was invited for dinner at Reuven's house. As they were about to start kiddush, Reuven realized that the loaves of bread were not covered. Suddenly, he called to his wife, Sarah, "Where is the challah cover?" She responded, "I don't know." Reuven then raised his voice and repeated his question. At that point, Shimon said to Reuven, "Tell me, my friend, what is the purpose of covering the loaves of bread during kiddush?" To which Reuven replied, "It is done in order not to embarrass the bread." As the words rolled out of his mouth, he realized what he had said, and began assisting his wife to find the challah cover. Later that night, he apologized to his wife for embarrassing her in front of the guests. He realized that he was so caught up in the details, that he had missed the whole point as to why it was done.

It is true that details are important; however, it is just as important, if not more so, to look at the big picture. May we all remember the bigger picture and the deeper ideas behind mitzvot and not get caught up in the minutiae of detail, while forgetting about the reasons behind it all.

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Yoel Feiler, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a senior at Yeshiva University in New York.

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