Pandemic ‘Tales of Gratitude’ can bring us together

Rabbi Neal Rose

By Rabbi Neal Rose

This week’s Torah reading describes the first seven of the 10 plagues that were intended to demonstrate how the power of the God of Israel surpasses that of Pharaoh and a host of lesser Egyptian gods and goddesses. 

At first, it appears that these are stories about how the God of the Hebrews overpowered both natural and supernatural forces. Yet our ancient and modern spiritual teachers suggest that there is more to the story than simple brute force. In fact, in their own way, they demonstrate that there are moral limits even to God’s exercise of power. 

As we shall see, our teachers indicate that even in the midst of God’s warlike behavior, there is still room for the moral virtue of gratitude, referred to in Hebrew as hakarat hatov

As we enter the story, Moses is commanded to turn the Nile into blood and then to fill the river with frogs. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the Nile was considered an important and potent source of power. Disrupting the life of the river not only upset the economic life of the people, it also dwarfed the gods associated with the Nile and highlighted the strength of the guardian of Israel.

The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi notes that God ordered Moses to pollute the Nile with blood and frogs, yet the actual deed was executed by Aaron, his brother. Based on an earlier midrashic source, Rashi explains that Moses refused to carry out the punishment because he owed the Nile a debt of gratitude because it had cared for him when he was a vulnerable infant. Thus God appoints Aaron to carry out the task. What is so interesting is that while the commentators clearly feel justified in demonstrating God’s use of force, they also appreciate Moses’ conviction to honor his debt to the Nile.

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Alan Morinis, a contemporary Jewish ethics teacher, says God truly appreciates Moses’ sense of gratitude, which extends even to the realm of the inanimate. The point is well made because much of Jewish prayer includes expressions of gratitude for the light, the dark, the sun and the moon. In the morning service, for example, we express thankfulness for the light; in the evening service we proclaim our gratitude for the coming of darkness and the rest that it offers. All of these expressions of gratitude to nature help create in us a sense of connectivity to the world at large.

A similar midrashic teaching appears in connection with the story of Moses being commanded to take revenge on the Midianites (Numbers 31:1-2). Here, too, God is depicted as the one who orders the attack, again sanctioning the use of brutal force. According to the midrashic teachers, Moses refuses to carry out this strike directed at yet another enemy of the people of Israel. In this imaginary dialogue Moses says to God: “The Midianites protected me when I fled Egypt, and I owe them a debt of gratitude for the way that they cared for me and my family.” Once again, God respects Moses’ moral quandary, endorsing the virtue of his gratitude.

Recently, our letter carrier, who worked throughout the pandemic, retired. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that this was going to happen until her substitute showed up and told me. I asked whether they would kindly take a message of thanks and good wishes to her. Over the lonely months of the pandemic, she kept us connected to the outside world. Very often, I would watch for her and I’d go out so we could exchange a few words. After a while, we ended our conversations by exchanging blessings. Together, we invoked the name of God, asking that we, and our families, be protected from the ravages of COVID-19. 

As I read the stories of Moses’ deep sense of thankfulness for all the living things and for all the people in his life, I am reminded of how much gratitude I owe to innumerable numbers of essential workers whose names I don’t even know. The best that I can do is to offer thanks for their good work in my daily prayers.

As we read and discuss these stories, I would love to hear about the people in your lives to whom you owe a debt of gratitude. I’m willing to wager that some of you have very interesting and moving stories about the way in which others have helped you during these long trying times. In fact, I would love to gather your stories and put them into a collection that we could simply call “Tales of Gratitude.”

I would like to conclude with a thank you for taking the time to read this. I truly appreciate the opportunity to share these thoughts with you!

Neal Rose is senior rabbinic scholar at Congregation B’nai Amoona. He is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.