This week’s parsha introduces the story of the 10 plagues that Hashem brings upon the Egyptians due to Pharoah’s refusal to free his Israelite slaves. The Torah relates that while most of the plagues were initiated by Moshe, it was his brother, Aharon, who actually initiated the first three plagues. Rashi, famously quoting the Midrash Shemos Rabbah, explains that Aharon initiated these plagues because the river protected Moshe when he was placed there as a baby by his mother, and the dust of the ground helped Moshe bury the Egyptian he killed. It was therefore inappropriate for Moshe to strike either the river, to start the plagues of blood and frogs; or the dust of the ground, to start the plague of lice. The implication seems to be that Moshe owed a sense of gratitude, or hakarat hatov, to the river and the dust- and therefore it wasn’t fitting for him to be the one to smite them to bring about their respective plagues.
While, at first glance, this seems like a nice idea- upon further reflection, an obvious question arises from this Midrash. The river and dirt are both inanimate objects, that are neither bothered by a lack of thanks, nor appreciate any hakarat hatov that would be directed towards them. Why, then, would Moshe be required to express thanks to objects that wouldn’t notice?
The answer appears to be simple, yet incredibly profound and important. Obviously, Moshe’s need to show thanks to the river and the dust was not for the benefit of those inanimate objects, as it didn’t affect them in any way. Rather, Moshe’s need to show thanks was for the benefit of Moshe himself– in order cultivate within him a sense of gratitude to anyone and anything that helped him during his life. After hearing about, and experiencing, the ways in which the river and the dust helped him, Moshe was meant to feel true appreciation for what occurred and gratitude towards them for helping him- to the point that he uncomfortable doing anything bad towards those objects. This ultimate goal of the hakarat hatov was not for the benefit of the one being thanked, but for the one doing the thanking.
In 2018, New York Times bestselling author A.J. Jacobs decided to embark on a mission to thank every single person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee- from the workers at the coffee place to the construction workers who paved the road upon which the coffee was delivered, all the way to the farmers in South America who grew the coffee beans. In his resulting book Thanks a Thousand, he describes his journey, and thereby “reveals secrets about how gratitude can make us all happier, more generous, and more connected.” When asked why he began this journey, he explained that he wasn’t doing it for the benefit of all the people he thanked- while they appreciated the thanks in the moment, it didn’t really have any lasting effect on them. Rather, he did it for himself. In life, noted Jacobs, there are many things that happen to us that we should be thankful for, but we don’t pay attention to them because we instead focus on those aspects of our lives that are more challenging. By going on this journey, he began to recognize all the people involved in even the simplest aspects of his day- and all the things that have to go right in order for his everyday life to proceed. When focused on these phenomena, he found that it made him a much happier person. Jacobs learned the crucial lesson of gratitude that Chazal already taught us, generations ago.
The concept of Hodaah, of having gratitude and giving thanks, is part and parcel of who we are as Jews. As a nation we are called “Yehudim”, named after Yaakov’s son Yehuda, who was so named by Leah because she felt “now I want to thank Hashem”. There is a common idea in Judaism that a person’s name is an expression of their essence- as such, the fact that we are called Yehudim means that an essential part of our nature is to be grateful, to recognize and express thanks for all that is done for us. As parents, one of our major responsibilities is to raise and educate our children, the next generation, with this overarching sense of hoda’ah.
In general, as a community we are good in this regard. Our communities and schools often educate us from a young age to say “thank you” when someone gives us something or does something for us. I still remember a song that I learned in 2nd grade about saying thank you- the chorus ending with the line “everything that is done for us, even thanking the driver on the bus”. We make sure that our kids say thank you to bus drivers, waiters- in sum, we make sure to educate our kids to be polite.
However, while training our children to be polite and to say thank you is certainly important, it is only half the job. We need to make sure that the “thank you” that our kids say is actually an expression of an inner feeling of hoda’ah– and not simply a half-hearted phrase that is said by rote. When educating our kids to simply say the words, we are ensuring that the correct words are said to the giver, to the person who benefited them. As we have demonstrated, however, the real goal of Hoda’ah is the affect it has on the person who expresses the thanks. Our ultimate goal is to cultivate within them a recognition of the good that they receive, a deep sense of gratitude for that good, and an awareness of the importance of expressing thanks. Not simply because it is polite, but because by doing so they tap into their essence as Jews, and they will ultimately, become happier people as well.
As an additional point- this idea has important religious implications as well. By cultivating this sense of gratitude within our children and encouraging them to recognize the things that are done for them daily, we also open a path for them to develop a deeper connection to Hashem. Hashem is the source of so much goodness within their lives- therefore the more sensitive they are to all that they receive, the greater the awareness they will have of all that Hashem does for them, as well.
How do we develop and cultivate this awareness within our children? As with most other lessons, the best way to do so is by living this middah ourselves and modeling it for our children. The more that we work on ourselves and strive to recognize the gifts that we receive from G-d and others in our daily lives, the more our children will learn from us and, hopefully, develop the same sensitivities as well.
Rav Hutner, in his Sefer Pachad Yitzchak on Channukah, relays a beautiful idea- he points out that the Hebrew word for “thanks”, the word “hoda’ah”, actually has another meaning as well- “to admit”. Rav Hutner suggests that that there is a deep relationship between these two meanings. When a person says thank you to his friend, what he is really doing is admitting to his friend he was lacking something, and that his friend was able to fill that void. As such, all forms of “thank you” really include within them an “admission” that we were lacking something, and we are therefore thankful to the other person for filling that lack.
Perhaps this is why it is hard for some people to say thank you- because they have trouble admitting that they are lacking or missing something- they think they have everything and don’t need help from anyone. But the beauty of cultivating thanks, within ourselves and our children, is that once we realize that we do depend on others for our existence and our life- be it on Hashem or on the people around us- then we can grow a greater appreciation and indebtedness to them, and become happier people along the way.
Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom!!