December 27, 2007
Lessons of gratitude
Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)
In the course of a lifetime, we encounter any number of friends.
Some are friends by happenstance -- friends who happen to attend school with us, happen to work where we do or reside near us. When we graduate from school, change careers or relocate, most such friends slowly disappear from our lives -- and we from theirs.
But there are others, fewer, whose friendship lasts a lifetime. They are the friends we invite to our child's bar mitzvah or wedding, even though we have not seen each other, or perhaps even spoken, for years.
In the soul of the permanent friendships that account for such deeper love, we very often find rooted some unspoken aspect of gratitude -- a friendship built within the trenches and foxholes when we faced unremitting attack, the friend who opened a door and welcomed us when we were alone, the person who was "there" when others were not.
In this week's Torah portion, we see glimpses of the phenomena that lie beneath the love and gratitude. As so often happens, gratitude is not always consciously expressed. But in deeds and life behavior, the importance of gratitude -- hakarat hatov -- is a Jewish value that is at the core of our societal being.
Moshe is born into a world that has condemned him to death. In desperation, his mother instructs Miriam, Moshe's sister, to place him in the river and to stand watch. Miriam stands guard faithfully. When Moshe is received and effectively adopted by the Pharaoh's daughter, Miriam rapidly reports to her mother, and Yocheved appears at the palace to nurse and rear Moshe in the ways and values of the Hebrews (Exodus 2:2-8).
In time, Moshe becomes a young man at the palace -- some midrashic sources say he is 20, some say 40 -- when he sees a horrible persecution. As discussed in Midrash Tanchuma, an Egyptian taskmaster has raped a Hebrew woman in her home and now is torturing the life out of her enslaved husband, who has learned the secret.
Moshe looks both ways -- some say that he simply is assuring that there are no witnesses; some say he is desperately looking for someone else to stand up and do what must be done, but "he saw there is no man. And he smote the Egyptian and hid him in the sand" (Exodus 2:12). Soon after, at the first of many unpleasant encounters he will endure with Datan and Aviram, he is compelled to flee Egypt for his life.
He reaches the wilderness of Midian, where he will remain in relative solitude for the next 40 or 60 years. In that wilderness, as Rav Avigdor Miller has observed, he will have time to contemplate his life's purpose and to weigh the meaning of his extended isolation from his persecuted people, continuing to withhold the unique life gifts and skills he gained while he was reared amid nobility and power.
At a well in that wilderness, he meets a shepherdess, Tzipporah, whom he first protects from attackers, then marries at the behest of a grateful father-in-law, Yitro, the high priest of Midian (Exodus 2:15-21). In so doing, he perhaps unknowingly continues the nascent Hebrew tradition that saw two of our patriarchs marry women found at the wells -- Rivkah and Rachel. All's well that ends well.
Soon, Hashem will reveal to his brother, Aharon, that Moshe will lead the nation to freedom, and Aharon -- rejoicing in his heart (Exodus 4:14) -- will come to draw Moshe back to Egypt.
And thus the background. Here is how the Torah value of gratitude will play out over the next 40 years. Moshe will never forget that Miriam stood by his basket floating in the water.
When she later will speak adversely about him and his relationship with his wife, eliciting on her Hashem's punishment of biblical leprosy, Moshe patiently and lovingly will pray for her recovery and then will do as she did, waiting patiently with the nation he is leading until her status is restored (Numbers 12:11-16).
Aharon, who responded with joy to news of Moshe's elevation over him, will be rewarded with the crown of the kehunah (priesthood) for all his generations. Unlike the contretemps that so gravely prevailed amid the jealousies of older Yishmael toward younger Yitzchak, older Esav toward younger Yaakov, and the older brothers toward Yosef, Aharon's unilateral love and joy for Moshe's elevation will seal the bond for a lifetime's fraternity, transcending genetic brotherhood.
Hashem will repay Yitro for hosting and feeding Moshe, just as He did Lavan, who hosted and fed Yaakov -- notwithstanding that each conferred hospitality for their own particular reasons -- with sons who will continue their dynasties (Genesis 30:35, 31:1; Judges 1:16). Moshe will honor Yitro repeatedly, first demonstratively asking his permission to return to Egypt, even though Hashem has commanded Moshe to depart from Midian (Exodus 4:18). And later Moshe will welcome Yitro into the Hebrew nation's midst, even adopting counsel Yitro offers.
Moshe, too, will demonstrate a fascinating gratitude toward the water that saved his life in infancy and the sand that hid the Egyptian tormentor whom he slew. Years later, when the first plagues hit Egypt in its water and earth, Moshe will not use his staff to strike those inanimate resources but instead will delegate that task to Aharon (Exodus 7:19, 8:2, 8:12).
These are the lessons of gratitude -- and the wonderful impact with which this Torah value enriches the lives of those who perform great acts of friendship -- and those who know how to carry hakarat hatov within their souls.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California and Rabbinical Council of America, is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rabbi of an Orthodox Union congregation in Orange County.