The Greatness of Gratitude

thank_you_inscriptionDid you ever notice that the first three plagues were not performed by Moshe?

G-d appoints Moshe to lead the people out of Egypt, and sends him to Pharoah to demand that Pharoah let the Jews go. Moshe impresses Pharoah with his staff, with the signs G-d showed him, and then begins to warn Pharoah of the plagues to follow. And then when it comes to executing the plagues themselves, Aharon does the dirty work: “G-d said to Moses, say to your brother Aharon…” [7:19, 8:1, and 8:12]

Rashi explains that there was a very good reason for this: the water shielded Moshe and protected him when he was put into the river as an infant, so it was Aharon and not Moshe who caused the water to turn to blood and to produce frogs. The earth covered for him [please forgive the pun] when Moshe killed the Egyptian who was striking another Jew, so again it was Aharon and not Moshe who caused the ground to suffer the production of lice.

Did the water intentionally do Moshe a favor? Was it even the same water? Would it feel pain if it was turned into blood? No, no, and no again. So why was it so important that Moshe not do these himself?

The Gur Aryeh, by the famous Maharal of Prague, tells us that the Torah is teaching us a valuable lesson. The Torah is teaching us that we must always show gratitude, and certainly not be ungrateful and ignore the kindnesses done for us. Even when it comes to inanimate objects, we are told “don’t throw rocks into the well you drank from.” But all the more so when it comes to another human being — it doesn’t matter if the favor done for us was even intentional, we still have to be grateful. We still have to remember what that person did for us and respond in a way that shows our thanks.

Sharing the Burden

The Sages tell us that the tribe of Yissachar distinguished itself through devotion to Torah study. Yaakov foresaw this, and even among the blessings given to his sons, this one is unusual: studying-torah-thumb“Yissachar is a strong donkey, who rests between the borders. And he saw rest, that it was good, and the land that it was pleasant, but he bent his shoulder to accept [the burden] and became an indentured servant.” [49:14]

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) explains that a “strong donkey” needs large bones to accept a yoke, in this case the yoke of Torah. His land was good for production of produce, but he bent to bear the yoke of Torah instead, in the service of all Israel.

Yaakov tells us that to become a Torah scholar is the most difficult of occupations. A person has to be willing to take on the burden of study “day and night.” And to do so, he says, is to be in the service of all Israel.

Even in our day, it is a spiritually gratifying yet very difficult profession. The descendants of Zevulun, Yissachar’s brother, shared in that burden and its reward, by supporting their brethren as they learned. That partnership is available to each of us today, every time we give a donation to increase Torah study. That, like learning itself, is being part of the lifeblood of our nation.

Recognizing Your Worth

self-esteem-pillsIn this week’s reading, Yaakov works for his father-in-law, Lavan, for fourteen years, in return for the privilege of marrying Lavan’s two daughters. Then he goes to Lavan and says, I have a family to feed as well, so I need to make some money for myself also. And in offering to continue working for Lavan, Yaakov makes a pretty bold claim: “for the little that you had before I arrived, it has expanded greatly, and G-d has blessed you ‘to my feet'” [Gen. 30:30]. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki explains that this means “because my feet came to you,” that all of the blessing that you received is because of me.

The Torah speaks a great deal about the value of humility, and G-d praises Moshe as the most humble of all men. How is it that Yaakov would praise himself so bluntly, and in a way that implies his father-in-law would not have been worth that blessing otherwise?

The answer is that nothing in the Torah says a person should dismiss his or her own self-worth. Yaakov knew that this was the truth, and he underscored this point to show Lavan that it was worth keeping him on and agreeing to this arrangement. Moshe may have been the most humble of all men, but he also knew to stand his ground with Korach, because the truth was with him.

A teacher of mine told me of a student who went to his Rosh Yeshiva, the Dean of his Yeshiva, and said that he was having trouble developing humility, because of his many ma’alos, his positive attributes. The Rosh Yeshiva thought to help him and said, “Ma’alos? Who says you have ma’alos?”

The student emerged crestfallen. “The Rosh Yeshiva thinks I don’t have any ma’alos!” And the point my teacher was making was that this lesson worked a little too well — according to him, it took the student about a year and a half to get over it! [It occurs to me now that perhaps my teacher was speaking autobiographically, but didn’t want to say so for obvious reasons. For the record, he is a person of tremendous ma’alos!]

To be humble is the very opposite of feeling worthless. Every person is created in the image of G-d, and every Jewish soul is compared in value to the entire world. It is important for every person to know his or her good attributes and self-worth, yet be humble enough to recognize that in the end they are all a gift from G-d.

Not Just “Going Through the Motions”

One of the Commandments that Moshe Rabbeinu addressed again in Deuteronomy is that of returning lost property. In this week’s reading, the verse reads: “You shall not see the ox of your brother, or his sheep or goat, having wandered off, and ignore them; you shall surely return them to your brother.” [22:1] The earlier version of this Mitzvah was in the book of Exodus [23:4]: “When you come upon the ox of your enemy, or his donkey wandering, you shall surely return it to him.”

470_2601432There is a profound difference between these two versions of the same Commandment. In the first version, it says you should return your enemy’s property — isn’t it obvious that you’ll return your friend’s property too? But then the later one says the property is your “brother’s,” perhaps implying that you only really have to return the property when someone you love is involved. How should we resolve this contradiction?

Rabbeinu Bechaya says that the Torah is teaching us that this Commandment has another objective, even beyond the simple act of returning lost property to its owner. This act of giving to another person offers the opportunity to arouse feelings of love and generosity towards that person, and for reciprocal feelings of gratitude and love as well. It’s not just “great, I get to do a Mitzvah” — it’s that the deeper goal is to arouse feelings of love and brotherhood.

With some Commandments and opportunities, the heart is crucial to the whole process. For example, prayer said by just saying the words, with no concentration, is compared by our Sages to a body without a head.

The same can be said, and even more, about things like the Mitzvah of having guests. More than once recently I’ve heard people say something like “they only invite people over for Shabbos to make them religious,” as compared to inviting them over as “people.” But the whole warmth of a Shabbos meal would be lost if that were true. If you don’t care about the person, inviting him or her to be a guest is of little value.

This general principle applies to so many of the things that the Torah tells us to do. It’s not just about going through the motions, but the underlying training to be more godly in our actions and behavior — and feelings. It’s important to put our hearts into everything we do!

Everyone Makes Mistakes

Believe it or not, this week’s message was not inspired by the fact that the Catholic Church has chosen a new Pope; it just offers a convenient contrast. As you probably know, there is, in their beliefs, a doctrine of papal infallibility. When the Pope teaches the rules, he is always right.

It is natural to assume that Judaism has something similar. This is especially true, given the Torah’s demand that we listen to the Rabbis and Judges, and not deviate “right or left” [Deut. 17:11] from what they say.

We see from this week’s reading, though, that this is definitely not the case. The Torah prescribes special atonement for when the High Priest, the King, or the Sanhedrin [Lev. 4: 13-21], the High Rabbinical Court, makes a mistake. In other words, the Torah highlights for us that it is possible for the Sanhedrin to be mistaken.

This is not about a small matter, either. The commentaries say that the mistake described here is one in which the Sanhedrin teaches that it is permitted to do something, and the Sanhedrin later realizes that the behavior is prohibited — so much so that a person committing the act deliberately would suffer the punishment of Kares, spiritual excision [the exact definition of this is disputed, but severe]. Even in matters of religious law, where the Sanhedrin’s supreme authority is undisputed — even there, they could make a mistake.

So why, then, does the Torah tell us to listen to them? They could, after all, be leading us in the wrong direction!

One answer has to do with the power of unity. Different customs and practices are wonderful, but there has to be underlying agreement on “the basics.” One of the problems with calling different Chassidic groups “sects” is that a sect is “a dissenting or schismatic religious body.” Chassidic groups may be led by different Rebbes, but they don’t rewrite the rules. The disagreements of today are disagreements about shapes of branches on individual trees within a massive, unified forest.

And there is another answer, which requires still more humility. It is all well and good to say that everyone is fallible — but who is more likely to be making a mistake? The Torah gives leadership to people who dedicate themselves completely to Torah study, to learning the Torah’s “way of thinking.” Such people are inherently less biased by the latest news reports and the wise opinions of the chattering class, as we are. We recognize that it is much less likely that they will make a mistake, and that is why we trust their guidance.

My Contribution

5008885941_83fa4b319b_oWhen it came to constructing the Tabernacle, everyone was invited to contribute as much as he wanted. Since not everyone has the same financial portfolio, it’s obvious that some people ended up giving more than others. In fact, we are told that the leaders of each tribe made a mistake. They said they would cover whatever was lacking, rather than giving immediately — and then the Bnei Yisrael gave more than was needed. This is why the leaders came at the end to bring the Shoham stones, the precious gems on the breastplate worn by the High Priest. Everything else had already been given!

In this week’s reading, we find a different plan. For the annual upkeep of the Temple, each adult male gave a 1/2 shekel coin — exactly the same amount.

There is an obvious message here: every individual has something to contribute. Every member of the Jewish people is part of a greater whole, and no one should think he or she is irrelevant.

Our teacher R’ Shlomo Katz, in his HaMa’ayan class, points to a comment of R’ Moshe Feinstein zt”l. R’ Moshe says that a person can think that he doesn’t really know much, and can’t learn like a great scholar, so it doesn’t matter if he studies or not. He can think that he’s really not a powerful or influential person, so it doesn’t matter if he goes out of his way to do a good deed.

This, says R’ Moshe, is why the opening verse [Ex. 30:11] begins, “When you raise the heads of the Children of Israel according to their numbers…” By counting them, Moshe is told, you are raising their heads. Each person is significant, and has much to contribute. Each individual is obligated to learn and do good deeds, like everyone else. Tap your potential, and you’ll find you’ve been given more than you thought!

A Giving Nation

In this week’s reading, the Jewish nation is commanded to give the materials necessary to construct the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and all the items within it. Unlike the annual contribution of a half-Shekel to the continuing operations of the Tabernacle and Temple, the amount of donations is not specified. On the contrary, it was up to the generosity of each individual.

The Medrash tells us that when G-d said to Moshe, “Let them make Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them” [Ex. 25:8], Moshe thought this inconceivable. How could G-d, Who Created and fills the entire universe, “dwell” in a small building? Yet G-d said to him that He, G-d, would not even fill the Mishkan, but rest between the rods of the Aron, the Holy Ark. So the goal could be achieved, but required generous individuals to step forward.

And everyone did.

This trait of kindness and generosity was part of what set Abraham apart, and something which HaShem wanted to be still more firmly ingrained in every member of the Jewish people. Indeed we learn later, in the Torah portion of Vayakhel [36:5-7], that they brought enough, and more than enough!

There are different varieties of generosity. The commentary Osiyos D’Rebbe Akiva makes a comparison to the gold, silver and copper donated to the Tabernacle. When everything is going well and a person is generous, that is compared to gold. When a person is sick and needs G-d’s help, his donation is compared to silver. And if he only gives when the metaphorical noose is already on his neck, then it is compared to copper. Even so, every donation of every type is valuable!

One motivation, of course, is gratitude. The Jews gave in the desert not merely because the Tabernacle would glorify G-d, but also because it showed recognition of all the wonders He had done for them in taking them from Egypt. In that case, the Mitzvah is not only kindness and charity, but acknowledgment of what others have done for us!

In that vein, I cannot resist a small plug for our raffle, which, should you enter now, offers you a chance to win a Megillas Esther, as well as a grand prize of $100,000. I hope that if you enjoy the Torah provided to you by each week, you will enter with your generous gift!

As always, we welcome your comments.

Good Shabbos!

Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Director, Project Genesis –

It’s Normal to Question

When the Chofetz Chaim himself, the saintly Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Kagan, was bemoaning how people were losing their faith and attachment to Judaism, it was the Rosh Mesivta (high school principal) who helped him feel better. The principal pointed out that even back in Egypt, when the Jews still remembered their forefathers and G-d’s promise, and knew the length of the exile, they still lost hope. “But they did not listen to Moshe, because of their fallen spirits and the difficult work…” [6:9]

The Mishnah tells us that we should say a blessing when we get exceptionally good news, or exceptionally bad news. These blessings are different, and the blessing that we say is based upon how we feel right now, regardless of future effects. For example, if a river floods a field, the farmer knows that the fresh sediments and nutrients will make his crops grow better for years to come. But emotionally, he sees that his current crop is ruined – and thus he says the blessing for bad news.

How is that consistent with the rabbinic teaching that everything which G-d does is for the best? That’s also part of the Mishnah! G-d is watching out for us, taking care of us, and meeting the unique needs of each individual – every minute of every day. So how can there be such a thing as “bad news?”

The Torah also knows that there such a thing as human nature. It is normal and human to feel happy in some situations, and sad in others. It is even unhealthy for a person not to feel a variety of different emotions in different situations. It is a sign that something is wrong with the person, and that is certainly not what the Torah expects of us.

So to be faced with doubts and questions is, in fact, totally normal, especially in trying times. The key is to remember that, indeed, G-d is watching out for us, and to use that knowledge to persevere and move forward. Thus the question is not whether we have doubts, but how we face them!

Finding Happiness

When Yaakov blesses Yehudah, he says that Yehudah will be “red-eyed from wine, and white-toothed from milk.” [49:12]

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan offers a homiletic interpretation of this verse. [Kesubos 111b]. He says that one who smiles graciously at his friend is even greater than one who gives him physical nourishment — a change of a vowel turns “white toothed” to “whitens his teeth,” which is “from”, or greater than, milk. One of the greatest things we can do for a person, he says, is to help him or her to be happy.

Last year I spoke about spreading happiness. But what is happiness, anyways? We think we know, but consider the following.

In our day, we are “blessed” with an industry whose sole purpose is to make us happy: entertainment. The dictionary tells us that entertainment is “something affording pleasure, diversion, or amusement,” and people clamor for the opportunity to work in an industry where their job boils down to making others happy — whether through acting, singing, professional sports, acrobatics or anything else that people will pay in order to come and be entertained.

There is also an industry whose practitioners seem chronically unable to be happy. An extraordinary number of them escape into drugs or even suicide. They are unlikely to maintain stable relationships. They often entertain themselves with unhealthy, harmful and illegal activities. And what industry is that? Why, the same one: entertainment.

You might also have thought that I was speaking of psychologists, because many of these things are true of them as well. The very therapists that people see when they are unhappy are themselves “at least as troubled as the general population.” People pay thousands of dollars for therapy to help them be happy, yet the practitioners themselves are miserable.

Does this make sense?

Yaakov said that Yehudah will be able to share happiness. I believe this is tied not merely to recognition of Yehudah’s leadership, but in the way it was expressed. When Yaakov prepared his family to descend to Egypt, he sent Yehudah on ahead “to guide the way to Goshen,” [46:28] which the Medrash explains to mean that he sent Yehudah to establish a House of Study.

Karl Marx wasn’t entirely wrong when he said that religion “is the opiate of the masses.” It does make people happier, but that happiness isn’t a drug or an escape. Recognizing that we are not alone, and rejoicing in our connection to G-d, makes us happier — but in the healthiest of ways. King David said it first: “were it not for your Torah, my consolation, I would be lost in my sorrows” [Psalms 119:92].

If a person has a true psychological issue, then indeed, a professional therapist can help. But if a person is just feeling a general malaise, then an escape into movies, books, and performances is of far less value than a visit to the House of Study. And by that, I don’t mean (only) eternal value, I mean what will be most helpful and enduring in the here and now.

Where We Must Work

In this week’s reading, the time for Yosef’s redemption finally arrives. Pharoah has dreams, his sommelier (wine butler) suddenly remembers Yosef, and Yosef is hastily pulled from jail, given a haircut, and sent to interpret the dreams of Pharoah.

Two weeks ago, I spoke about the need to make our own efforts, while knowing that in the end it is G-d who determines the results. But I closed with a question: what was wrong with Joseph’s efforts? Why was he punished for asking the sommelier to remember him?

It’s clear that that is what happened. Last week’s reading concludes with the verse, “and the sommelier did not remember Yosef, and he forgot him.” Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki explains that he did not remember him that day, and forgot him afterwards — because Yosef had placed his trust in the sommelier rather than G-d. That is a startling indictment of the only one of Yaakov’s sons who was the forefather of two tribes. For someone of his exalted standard, we are told, what Yosef did was wrong. But why — what was wrong with trying?

I saw an interesting explanation attributed to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a world-renowned religious leader who passed away barely 25 years ago. He said that Yosef’s high standard was very much part of the issue. Yosef, being who he was, should have recognized immediately that the peculiar circumstance of his being imprisoned together with Pharoah’s personal sommelier and baker, and them having dreams, and him knowing exactly what to tell them — all of that was clearly not coincidence. It should have been obvious to him that G-d’s Plan was already in motion. As we see this week, he was rushed from prison to tell Pharoah that fat cows mean times of plenty, and starving cows mean times of starvation, and was instantly appointed second in command over the whole country. With “20/20 hindsight” it’s obvious that this was all planned out — and enough signs were there that Yosef should have seen it coming.

But we, alas, are not Yosef. Very rarely could we be confident that we are in a situation where our efforts aren’t needed, before the gift of hindsight. We always have to do our best. When should we be idle? When we have done everything humanly possible.

And among the fascinating comments which I received, I would like to respond to the one from Esty who said it is difficult to understand how much effort a person needs to put in, especially in terms of self growth. To her I would say, this is the area where our efforts are actually most crucial! The Talmud says that everything is in the hands of Heaven — except fear of Heaven. This is the exception to the rule that we make our effort, but G-d determines whether there will be success. In this particular area, when we make an effort, G-d will give us success. “Open for me an opening like the eye of a needle, and I will open it for you the size of a hall.” There is truly no limit to the effort a person should put in, when it comes to self-growth towards G-d.

We are now in the closing days of Chanukah, when the miracle of the burning oil testified to the miracle of the recapture and rededication of the Holy Temple. This is when G-d brought extra light to the world, and as the verse says — “the Commandment is a candle, and the Torah is the light.” This is an ideal time for us to increase our efforts to attach ourselves to G-d and Torah.