How does one make life meaningful? How do we make sure that we are living every moment to its fullest potential? This week’s portion, Shemos, contains a powerful indication to Judaism’s recipe for a meaningful and joyful life.
At the beginning of Shemos, we find the family of Ya’acov as strangers in the land of Egypt. The enslavement of the Jewish people, and the morass of evil that ensues, begins with one very specific occurrence: “And a new King arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Shemot 1:8).
How could a Pharaoh in the time immediately following Joseph’s death have no knowledge of who Joseph was — or even pretend he does not know? How could the Egyptian people allow such a convenient “amnesia” to take place, conveniently forgetting all the good Joseph had done for Egypt in saving it from seven years of famine and ensuring its survival as the Empire of the time?
This is not just an ancient phenomenon; the Holocaust began because an entire society did not feel any sense of gratitude towards a generation of Jews who fought in her defense in World War I.
The beginning of Egyptian servitude is really about ingratitude, just as man’s original exile from the Garden of Eden was also rooted in that same sense of ingratitude, when Adam suggests it was Eve’s fault: “The woman you gave me tempted me and Iate”
Adam’s chet was not appreciating the gift of the partner (Eve) he had only just been given by G-d.
We get into our cars to go to work, barely conscious of the fact that there are hundreds of millions of people in the world who have no work, much less a car, and yet we complain because a traffic jam causes us a half hour delay.
You come home annoyed at your wife because she parked your car in the wrong spot, and actually forget what an incredible gift it is in today’s world that you are coming home to a woman who decided that you are the person she wants to spend the rest of her life with. How is it we get angry and complain about things our children may do, and forget how many people desperately wish to have such problems?
How can we be so blatantly ungrateful?
Rav Avigdor Nevehnsahl, in his Sichot L’Sefer Shemot, suggests that there are a variety of reasons people are uncomfortable with gratitude, but mostly they boil down to one point: We don’t want to feel we owe anyone or anything, we want to feel we can do it alone.
We think: “Well, he did me a favor, but I’ve more than paid him back; in fact, he really owes me,” or: “No matter how much he’ll ever do for me, it doesn’t come close to the good I’ve done for him.”
The root of all ingratitude is selfishness; I don’t want to owe anyone anything because I want it to be all about me. And this was Egypt’s great mistake. Pharaoh, and with him the Egyptians, began to rationalize: What did Joseph and the Jews do after all? We granted them a safe haven, and even gave them their own land in Goshen! They really owe us!
Which may be why the Jewish people’s redemption from Egypt begins with hakarat hatov, or gratitude.
When Hashem visits the first of ten plagues upon the Egyptians by turning the Nile into a river of blood, it is Aaron who actually sets this plague in motion, because Moshe, 80 years earlier, was actually saved as a baby (from Pharaoh’s decree to drown all the Jewish male babies) by the waters of the Nile River! Obviously this is not because Moshe does not want to offend a river; it is because the development of gratitude as a character trait is so critical, that Hashem wants Moshe to practice gratitude even on the Nile River.
Rav Nevehnsahl shares an amazing story about Rav Ze’ev Gustman, the Rosh Yeshiva of Netzach Yisrael Yeshiva in Jerusalem, who passed away in 1991 and was one of the great and holy men of the last generation. (Rav Gustman was one of the dayanim who sat on Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky’s Beit Din in Vilna, an unheard of honor for someone so young and an indication of his great stature even then.)
When the Nazis gathered all the Jews of Vilna together for their final journey, Rav Gustman succeeded miraculously in hiding in one of the bushes in his backyard, from where he succeeded in escaping to the forest where he hid with his wife and daughter for the remainder of the war. Until two years before his death, Rav Gustman continued to personally water the plants in the yeshiva courtyard every day in recognition of the fact that a simple bush had saved his life 50 years earlier in Vilna.
We need to understand that displaying gratitude is not because the other person needs it; rather, we need it, because being grateful makes us better people and makes the world a better place to be, and makes room for Hashem in our life, which is why were are here in the first place.
And this was the essence of who Joseph was. When the brothers are afraid of Joseph’s wrath upon encountering him 22 years after having sold him as a slave and left him for dead, Joseph is actually grateful to the brothers for having been the vehicle G-d chose to allow him to save them along with an entire country!
Precisely because Joseph represented the essence of constantly appreciating all the good Hashem is constantly giving us, even when we don’t see it that way, the Egyptian slavery only begins after Joseph is dead and the Egyptians can conveniently “forget” him.
It is no accident that Judaism begins the day with the Modeh Ani prayer, and that the first word we say every day, before anything else, is simply “I will be thankful.”
We choose, in every second of every minute of our lives, whether to appreciate what we have, or to bemoan what we are missing. And in so doing, we choose not what we have, but how we have it, and who we are.
May Hashem bless all of us with the strength and wisdom to appreciate all the gifts we have in this world, because that is the first step in making the world the place we want it to be.