Parsha Va’eira is the Torah portion with almost all the plagues. And Moses, the staff, and the snakes, and Moses and Pharaoh coming head to head. Basically, if you’ve seen the Ten Commandments, Prince of Egypt, and/or the more recent Exodus: Gods and Kings, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what happens in the parsha. But what you may not realize is that despite the fact that Moses has the might of Hashem behind him, he still will be restricted by something. And that restriction contains an important lesson.
Moses and Aaron return to Pharaoh after last time (in Parsha Shemos) and demand Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go. But this time they’re going to show Pharaoh a sign of God’s power. Aaron throws down his staff and it turns into a snake. Pharaoh has his sorcerers throw down their staffs and they turn into snakes too. But then Aaron’s staff eats all the other snakes and this greatly disturbs Pharaoh. But he shakes it off. It’s time to bring on the plagues.
Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh as he’s bathing in the Nile and Aaron hits the water with his staff turning the whole of the Nile into Blood. After a week of bloody water, Pharaoh still hasn’t changed his mind. God instructs Moses to have Aaron once again to use his staff on the water and a plague of Frogs covers the land.
For the third plague, Moses has Aaron strike the land and the dust of the earth turns to Lice. Subsequently more plagues follow. Wild Beasts, Death of Cattle, Boils, and Hail. Locust, Darkness, and Death of the Firstborn happen too, but that’s next week’s parsha.
Moses takes a break?
So in all the movies, Moses is the one doing all the plague summoning. Yet if you notice above, on the first 3 plagues, Aaron is the one doing the work. Is Moses being lazy? Does he need to conserve his strength to summon the latter plagues? Of course not. The reason Moses is sitting out these first few plagues is strangely enough, out of gratitude.
As a baby, Moses’s mother put him in a basket and sent him adrift in the Nile while all the other Jewish male babies were being drowned in said river. Then when Moses kills the Egyptian to save the Hebrew slave, he hides the body, burying it in the dirt. For both the water and the earth Moses owes a debt of gratitude.
That’s nice. I wouldn’t want the ground to feel my ingratitude.
Okay, so we should feel grateful for things. But we’re talking about water and dirt, isn’t that a little extreme? Do you we really need to be concerned with the feelings of inanimate objects?
Of course not. But let’s look at the concept of gratitude for just a moment. In Hebrew, the word for gratitude is hakarat hatov. Literally “to recognize good.” How do you say thank you in Hebrew? Todah. Which is connected to the word Modeh, which means to acknowledge. So at the core of gratitude we come away with two essential ideas. 1) I was lacking and I recognize that lacking was fulfilled. 2) That fulfillment came from something outside of me. From someone or something else.
What Judaism is saying is that anytime you can recognize the good around you, it can only enhance your life. And in the cases where you were given that good when you needed it, all the more so. Moses is operating on an exceedingly high level of gratitude. He has the ultimate recognition. And so not hitting the water or the dirt isn’t about the water or the dirt. It’s that Moses will lose an element of that sensitivity.
Why do you think your parents had you write all those thank you notes after your bar/bat mitzvah? Was it really about etiquette or making sure their friends didn’t get angry? Probably. But there’s a good chance they were trying to cultivate within you a sense of gratitude.
I went to a 12 year old’s birthday party this week. And at the end of that party you know what the 12 year old did? He thanked his parents for the party. Can you believe that? When cable TV is filled with shows about spoiled kids getting ridiculously extravagant sweet 16 parties, and not a word of thank you, only anger and entitlement, this kid thanks his parents. It is said by both Rabbis and modern psychology that the key to happiness is appreciating what you have. It’s clear which of the two kids were happier at the end of their respective parties.
So if you want to develop this sensitivity of gratitude within yourself, there is a tremendous exercise. Reflect on your parents and think of 10 things they gave you. It may not be so easy at first, but take some time. And not just, they bought me some clothes or fed me till I was 18. Some of them should be things you’ve learned about life. Whenever an animal had been hit by a car, my father would always pull over and move that animal to the side of the road. ALWAYS. I do not continue this practice. I mean come on, I live in LA. But to this day, the thought always pops up, “Ben, you should pull over.” I owe that to my father.
Then if you are able to do that and you want to go further, reflect and identify 10 pieces of wisdom you learned and think about where you got them. From a teacher? From a friend? A coworker? Then call them or email them or text them and say thank you. They’ll feel great and I promise you, your life will be enhanced.