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Avrohom Leventhal
Avrohom Leventhal

The hippo in the room

The Parsha in Chesed – Va’era

During the 1970s, Western Africa was hit with severe drought and famine. One of the hardest hit countries was Gambia, a tiny coastal country dominated by the Gambia River which flows through its center.

Scores of ecologists were brought in to conduct studies and evaluations. While limited rainfall was a major contributor, the scientists were surprised by another factor.

Several years prior, the Gambian government enacted a law permitting the hunting of hippopotami. Due to the diminished hippopotami population, the agriculture in Gambia suffered increasingly.

As one ecologist wrote…

Hippos are ecosystem engineers. Because of their massive size, they create new paths and channels as they move through the water and between water and land. Water flows through these channels during the wet season, which creates new habitat and shelter for birds, insects, and other species. And in the dry season, the lagoons left behind provide a safe haven for small fish and other creatures. Hippos are also critical to the health of wetland ecosystems because of the role they play, through defecation, in fertilizing the water.

Thanks hippos.

Believe it or not, this tidbit of trivia relates to our parsha. And not to the plague of ערוב (wild animals)!

The exodus from Egypt was precipitated by the 10 Makkot (plagues) .
Each plague was preceded with several weeks of warning followed by the plague itself.

The execution of the first three plagues differed from the others by way of who executed the punishment.

While Moshe was commanded to give warning and execute the plagues, when it came to blood, frogs and lice, it was Aharon, and not Moshe who was instructed to strike the water or sand.

The reason given is that it would not be proper for Moshe to strike the water which saved him as a baby. Similarly, the sand concealed the corpse of the Egyptian overlord whom Moshe killed in defense of a slave being mercilessly attacked.

By instructing Aharon to carry out the plague, Moshe would be displaying true Hakarat HaTov (appreciation) for how the water and sand benefitted him.

One could certainly ask, “would the water even know it was hit? Does sand have feelings?” Why emphasize this detail of Aharon striking rather than Moshe as part of the narrative?

There are so many better examples of Hakarat HaTov involving people. Why does the Torah use cases of inanimate objects to teach us about showing appreciation?

Perhaps the answer lies within the term Hakarat HaTov itself. Hakarat Hatov means the recognition of the good that one benefits from. If Hakarat HaTov applied to people only, it would be more correct to “express appreciation” rather than to recognize the good. The beneficial party is able to feel the good will received.

Herein lies the beauty of Torah philosophy. Each person and everything has the potential to contribute to society. Even when the benefactor is an inanimate object, such as water, sand or a piece of furniture, we should recognize how it affects our lives for the better. Hence the word Hakarat, recognition, is the key to appreciation. A desk that enables one to learn or to serve guests or the car that makes life more convenient, are deserving of our praise.

The lesson of the water and sand is simple. We are required to recognize even something that can’t feel our gratitude. If so, it is certainly incumbent upon us to constantly acknowledge the good that we receive from the people in our lives.

There is abundant good that we constantly receive from our spouses, parents, relatives, neighbors, friends and strangers. And these people have the ability to accept and feel our gratitude.

Great service in a restaurant or store should be complimented with a “thank you”, tip and smile. Our mail carriers, garbage collectors, military personnel, police, medics and firemen enable us to have a better and safer quality of life. They deserve our appreciation, even if it’s a simple thank you or smile.

Our name “Yehudim” (Jews) imbues within us the obligation to constantly appreciate the good that we receive.

Benevolence comes in many forms, from Above, from those around us and even sometimes from the water, sand and hippos that frolic in them.

By conditioning ourselves to recognize and acknowledge all of the gifts in our lives, we can and become better, happier and more fulfilled inhabitants of this great world.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Avrohom Leventhal, noted educator and speaker, is the Executive Director at Lema'an Achai.
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