The Greatness of the Virtue of Gratitude
“The L-RD said to Moses, ‘Say to Aaron: Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt’” (Ex 7:19). Why is Aaron responsible for this? Because, our Sages tell us, the river protected Moses when he was cast into it (Shemot Rabba 9:9). Is it appropriate to throw a rock into a well that we drank water from (Bava Kama 92b)?
In one of his books, Rabbi Nathan Tzvi Finkel of Slabodka writes that it was in this way that our Sages behaved, throughout the generations. He cites as an example the case of the Rif, who was opposed to the sale of a public bath that he used (Shitah Meubetzeth). It was the Sages who taught this vision of things, as we see in Midrash Tanhuma: “Why were the water and sand struck by Aaron? Rabbi Tanhum says: The Holy One, blessed be He, told Moses, ‘It is not proper that you strike the waters that saved you when you were thrown into the river, or the sand that protected you when you killed the Egyptian’” (Tanhuma Va’eira 14).
Another Midrash recounts that Moses himself was requested to strike the waters: “‘Where do the Egyptians get their water to drink?’ asked the Holy One. Moses replied, ‘From the Nile.’ G-d ordered him: ‘Turn it into blood.’ Moses replied, ‘I cannot do so. Does a person who drinks water from a well throw a stone into it?’” (Shemot Rabba 20a).
The transformation of the river to blood and the sand to lice, which was something of a miracle, certainly contributed to demonstrating the Eternal’s greatness, and through this to have encouraged the Children of Israel to believe in Him. But these miracles also contributed to strengthening in Moses his trait of gratitude. Thus, our Sages say, when the Eternal said to Moses, “And now, go and I will dispatch you to Pharaoh” (Ex 3:10), Moses replied, “Master of the universe, I cannot do so because Jethro opened wide his home to me. He considers me as his son. I can’t show myself to be ungrateful” (Shemot Rabba 4:2). Rabbi Nathan Tzvi comments on this in one of his books and states, “This is a strange remark. How could Moses, on whom depended the deliverance of the Children of Israel, the liberation from Egyptian enslavement, the giving of the Torah, the entry of Israel into the Holy Land, the construction of the Holy Temple – how could he refuse this Divine mission simply to avoid seeming ungrateful?”
It is because, as we have read, the one who shows himself ungrateful towards someone who has done him good ends up by renouncing the existence G-d Himself. This is what Moses feared. What would his mission have been worth if he had not shown his gratitude towards Jethro, a man who not only opened his home to him, but also gave him his daughter in marriage? This is the reason why Moses didn’t give in. What’s more, if he had consented, the example of gratitude that he would have provided, in his capacity as leader, would have been more than suspect.
Can one say as much for Jacob? Arriving at Laban’s without a thing (since Eliphaz, Esau’s son, had completely robbed him – cf. Sefer Hayashar, Vayeitzei), he lived with him for many years and married his two daughters. Then suddenly, “he fled with all he had” (Gen 3:21). Didn’t Jacob remember that despite his father-in-law’s great wickedness, he had opened wide the doors of his home to him (Bereshith Rabba 70:6) and even saved him from Esau? Why then didn’t Jacob show any gratitude towards him?
If we look a little more closely, the reason is because our Patriarch owed absolutely nothing to Laban, since Laban had only been thinking of himself. Why, for example, did he hug and kiss Jacob (Gen 29:13)? It was because, our Sages tell us, Laban thought that Jacob had brought with him some money, gold, or precious stones, and that he kept them in his pockets or his mouth (Bereshith Rabba 70:13). However, when Laban found nothing, he told Jacob, “Is it because you are my brother that you should serve me for free?” (Gen 29:15). It is as if he said, “I won’t welcome you in my house for more than a month.” The Yalkut Meam Loez reports that during his stay with him, Laban would throw bones to Jacob, as with a dog, and Laban did this in spite of everything that Jacob had done to protect Laban’s flocks.
Thus Laban didn’t help Jacob at all, but on the contrary, he wanted to exploit and rob him to the hilt. Laban even thought of killing him, as it is written, “An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather” (Deut 26:5). And even if he didn’t succeed, “among the nations, an evil intention is considered as an act” (Kiddushin 40a). As a result, all this proves that Laban sought only to harm him.
Commenting on the teaching of our Sages that states: “Do not throw a stone into the well from which you drank,” Rabbi Eliyahu Desler writes in his book Michtav MeEliyahu, “How can a well, which is lifeless, feel any sense of ingratitude that is shown it? One can even ask this question with respect to the sand that had saved Moses’ life. Furthermore, it would be necessary to realize that the blows that struck the water and the sand transformed them into tools destined to sanctify G-d’s Name. How can one thus speak of humiliation?” (Michtav MeEliyahu, pp.100-101; cf. Messilat Yesharim, end of ch.1).
It is because in all of creation, the mineral and vegetable realms daily proclaim that it is the Holy One, blessed be He, Who created them with a predetermined goal, be it for men to benefit from or simply for the glory of G-d. The one who derives pleasure from it must always thank G-d from having created them. This is what all of creation does, teaches the Talmud: “All was created for man …” (Sanhedrin 37a). Thus, their use in a miracle brings with it a sanctification of G-d’s Name in the world, but when man treats with contempt that which brings him pleasure, he expresses in this way ingratitude. He ends up by expressing ingratitude not to the inanimate object, but to his Creator (see Kohelet Rabba 7:4; Mechilta Shemot 20). All the more reason, then, that a man should show his gratitude to his neighbor, a being that senses pain if humiliated and is filled with gratitude when pleased. If a person becomes accustomed to not looking down on G-d’s creation, he will then respect man, who is made in His image, and will end up by not disparaging the benefits that the Eternal Himself bestows.
To look at this more closely, one sees that the Creator is the source of all causes. When a man is in need of something and G-d sends it to him indirectly (that is, through someone else), if the beneficiary does not show his gratitude towards him, it’s as if he demonstrates his ingratitude towards G-d. It’s therefore appropriate to instill in our hearts the virtue of gratitude.