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Va'eira: Fostering an Attitude of Gratitude

This week’s Parsha continues the epic epoch surrounding the exodus from Egypt, featuring Moshe and Aharon as the protagonists and redeemers. Of course, despite Aharon’s central role, Moshe was the Manhig, the leader, and the “moshiah,” or savior, foreseen by Pharaoh’s astrologists eighty years before. And yet, when it comes time for “show time,” beginning with turning the Nile to blood, it is not Moshe who strikes the miraculous blow to begin the famous ten plagues. In fact, following all the fanfare of their conversation at the Sneh, Hashem commands Moshe to tell Aharon to initiate the plague of blood, and Aharon does so, as the Pasuk says, “vaya’asu kein Moshe v’Aharon… va’yarem bamateh, vayach es hamayim” (19:7).

Rashi notes that it is Aharon who begins the plagues of blood, frogs, and lice, which required hitting the Nile and the ground with his staff, because Moshe owed a life debt to both the Nile and the sands of Egypt. The Midrash Tanchuma notes that Moshe did not himself hit the sand or water because the Nile had saved him by keeping him alive and the sand had helped him by burying the Mitzri he had killed, an act for which Moshe was grateful, even though the murder was eventually discovered.

Moshe’s gratitude is striking, and it gives us pause to consider whether we are able to express our Hakaras HaTov to those who help, guide, support, and provide for us.

If you’ve ever been or observed the “candy man” in Shul, you’re familiar with the common ensuing exchange when a child is in pursuit of a lollypop or some similar treat. The child will glance knowingly at the goods, maybe even put his or her hand out in supplication. Rarely, a “well-trained” child might even approach the potential candy provider and ask for the candy. Most often, however, once the child is amply supplied, he or she will grin excitedly, and turn tail as fast as you can say “sweet.” If a parent is present, you’ll likely hear, “so-and-so, what do you say to Mr. Candy Man?,” at which point the child will turn around, abashed, and, in a barely audible voice, say “thank you,” to the floor or the wall right over the candy man’s left shoulder.

Along the developmental trajectory, we find an exaggerated and often more frustrating version of this hesitation around gratitude in adolescents’ interactions with their parents. Parents want to teach their children; it is a natural and imperative instinct. And yet, the best way for teens to make good decisions is to actually believe that they have come up with the approach themselves. Parents must be coached to plant ideas in their teens’ minds in a way that the teen believes it is his or her agency and newly formed sense of autonomy that is paving the way. God forbid a parent give their child an idea or tell them what to do in a given situation and then be RIGHT about it! No, that would be shameful, and require an uncomfortable exchange similar to the one outlined above - a teen thanking his parents for helping him, acknowledging that he needs them, is a rare occurrence indeed.

What is it that makes saying thank you so difficult?

In Alei Shur, Rav Wolbe notes that gratitude is one of the most important traits a person can possess. Gratitude, the ability to admit what others have done for us, requires us to recognize that we need help, that we need others, and that, inherently, we are lacking. This is why the root word for gratitude in Hebrew (Hodaah, or to be Modeh) is the same as the root for “admit” (li’hisvadah, or viduy). Such humility and acknowledgement is an essential factor in human relationships, for, of course, we inherently need one another to survive, and connection requires giving to and receiving from others. Furthermore, however, gratitude is also at the foundation of our relationship with God. It is for this reason that we are known as Yehudim, after Yehuda, whom Leah named with the statement, “hapa’am odeh es Hashem.” Our entire identity is built upon being able to express thanks.

By design, we are all lacking. God has blessed us with so much, and yet, at the same time, we are so reliant upon Him and need Him desperately every moment of our lives. Whether through our daily prayers, or blessings over food, or by excessive use of the #thankyouHashem hash-tag or related apparel and paraphernalia (big fan, myself), to thank God is to admit that one is lacking. This is not easy to do, particularly not as often as the Torah requires of us. And yet, through fostering gratitude, we will find that we are able to let go of the need to be perfect, in control, completely independent, and embrace the deficiencies in our lives that allow us to turn to Hashem, to connect with Him, and to connect with others.

In the spirit of Moshe’s gratitude, let us commit this week to being more mindful of our own hesitation to acknowledge our dependence on God, and on the people in our lives who give to us the most. As difficult as it may be to admit that we have needs, that we all want for something, to do so is only to acknowledge what is already true, in a way that helps us to gain the support we need, and ultimately, to live more connected, meaningful lives.

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