Both personally and professionally, I’ve known too many people who have a “use them and abuse them” mentality. These egocentrics regard other people as cogs in a system whose sole raison d’etre is to revolve around their needs and ambitions. With aplomb, they believe the world was created to satisfy their desires. That selfish drive is the centripetal force that sets people and circumstances in motion. They care not about the damage they cause in the process. You are here to serve them and once you’ve done all you can, your usefulness is expired. They will find others to use and abuse. They may regard themselves as geniuses in their game of life, but the Torah regards them as Pharaohs, as arrogant enemies of Hashem.
We read in last week’s Torah portion, Shemot, about Joseph’s death and how “a new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph”– the very Joseph who was the only man who could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and who was appointed viceroy, standing only second to Pharaoh. The Joseph who made the country rich and saved it from ruin; The Joseph about whom all of Egypt heard when his brothers had arrived. Yes, that famous Joseph, with a coat of many colors, who we all still know about thousands of years later, yet, somehow, Pharaoh just couldn’t seem to remember him.
After all, remembering comes with a heavy price – we might have to say “Thank you.” And so, the new Pharaoh showed his gratitude by enslaving Israel and murdering their firstborn. Talk about appreciation! Some of our sages explain that the “new Pharaoh” was not a different person at all, but rather the very same Pharaoh who arose with a NEW attitude. Once the bad times were over, he figured the Jews were expendable. He thought himself a god and didn’t want to be outdone or overpowered by the people who made him successful. And he literally bathed himself in Jewish blood.
The Torah teaches us a very different lesson about gratitude. After all the Egyptians did to the Israelites over hundreds of years of slave labor, killing their children and committing unspeakable cruelty, the Torah commands us, “You shall not hate an Egyptian, for you were a sojourner in his land” (Deuteronomy 23:8). The Biblical commentator Rashi explains that we are not permitted to despise them because they hosted us in a time of need. If we can’t hate those who tormented us because they were once good to us, imagine how much more we owe those who were good to us. We must appreciate and consider the efforts on their part which made our lives better sometimes at a great personal price to them.
Other examples in Judaism teach us about gratitude and our indebtedness to anyone or anything which helped us. For instance, if we decide to change the mere casing of a mezuzah wherein a holy parchment was once contained, whether we change it to upgrade our decor or if the prior one was rotten or broken, it can’t just be thrown away in a garbage can. There is a respectful means of disposal. Even if a bag was used to carry holy objects and the bag is no longer needed, it can’t just be tossed away with the regular trash. Again there is a proper procedure to follow.
That being said, if inanimate objects which helped us and served to holy ends can’t be dismissed irreverently, imagine how much more so are human beings to be treated with appreciation, dignity, respect and gratitude if they helped us. When we are famished, it is easy to thank G-d for the sandwich in front of us. But Judaism teaches us to say thank you also when we finish satisfying our appetites. If you eat as quickly as I sometimes do, the thank-you prayer, Birkat Hamazon, takes longer to recite than the eating. And that’s okay, lest we forget the Provider once our stomach is filled.
It is actually only when we are in a perpetual state of gratitude that our best blessings are yet to come. “King Hezekiah had great messianic potential. G-d made great miracles for him, smiting the armies of Sennacherib who surrounded Jerusalem. But because he did not sing a song of praise to G-d for the miracle, he was not appointed to be the Mashiach. (Sanhedrin 94a via Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman). Gratitude is a fundamental of Judaism. In fact, the term “Yehudi”– Jew, comes from the Hebrew name Yehuda, which means thanks and gratitude. It is thus from the tribe of Yehuda that the Messiah will come. Phonies, Pharaohs, forgetters take all the credit while real leaders, like Moses and King David, give credit and thanks where it is due.
We may think we are clever and coy. But everything comes from G-d. When we are not grateful for all the people, circumstances, food, and money, etc. which He sent to help us, it is He too that we are snubbing. We saw what G-d did to Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s power went to his head and he deemed himself a god. He would even pretend he had no bathroom needs and would do his business early in the morning in the Nile. But he was hardly “god” enough to save Egypt not from famine and not from G-d’s mighty Hand.
How many of us can think of all those times when we were there for people when they were down and out? But then one day, when they “made it,” they forgot our name, forgot all we did for them, offer begrudging hellos and try and distance themselves from us? Once they walked through those doors of opportunity, they never turned back; they no longer seemed to care about us. They greased the cogs with sweet phony oil and had us running in circles for them.
And are we any different? It seems we often remember what we do for others, even the $5 we lent someone 20 years ago, and insist we are only upset “on principle” that they didn’t pay us back. But when we owe others, we can manufacture excuses a mile a minute as to why the account has been settled. We overvalue ourselves in the giving and undervalue favors when we are taking.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to one thing. Are you a Pharaoh with a short term convenient memory? Are people as good as their last favor? Or are you a mensch? Are you a grateful person? Do you think people are just rungs on a ladder that you can step on as you rise? In fact, the higher one ascends on the ladder, the more grateful one should be for the “earth” that supports it. G-d punishes those who climb their way to lethe and become oblivious of those who launched their rise.
And for those of us who feel like the steps on the ladder, know that the Hebrew word for ladder (sulam) and Sinai (the host mountain where G-d gave His commandments) both have the same numerical value of 130. So, know you’ve done the right thing and your deeds add up to decency. Be grateful that the Almighty endowed you with something to give. And know that G-d has a long term memory, despite all those who quickly forget!