Gratitude — Why, and How

Last week we learned how Moshe Rabbeinu asked Hashem regarding who would succeed him as the leader of the Bnei Yisrael: “Appoint a man over the eidah who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them back.”

Rashi explains that unlike the leaders of other nations who send their soldiers to war while they stay behind, Moshe Rabbeinu, Yehoshua ben Nun and Dovid Hamelech personally led their people into battle.

This week we learn that the Ribbono shel Olam instructed Moshe Rabbeinu, “Take revenge for Bnei Yisrael against the Midianites; afterwards you will be gathered unto your people.”

The Alshich teaches us that this mission was a gift from Hakadosh Baruch Hu to Moshe Rabbeinu. Since Moshe was about to leave this world, Hashem wanted him to have the opportunity to rectify his own inaction when the tragedy of Zimri occurred.

If so, we would assume that Moshe Rabbeinu would personally lead the effort to revenge the heinous and unforgivable acts committed by the Midyanim.

But actually, this time Moshe Rabbeinu didn’t go to battle himself. Instead he sent twelve thousand men and Pinchas as his messengers. Certainly they acted as the personal representatives of Moshe Rabbeinu and the rest of the nation, but why didn’t Moshe Rabbeinu go himself?

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 22:4) in fact asks: “Hakadosh Baruch Hu told Moshe Rabbeinu to personally take revenge [on Midian] and he sends others?”

The answer given by the Midrash is a powerful and very relevant lesson.

Since Moshe Rabbeinu grew up in Midian, he felt it would not be right for him to cause them distress. After all, they had done him a “favor”!

In Sichos Mussar, Hagaon Harav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, wonders about this Midrash. How is it possible that Moshe Rabbeinu should avoid carrying out a mitzvah he was commanded to do by Hashem because of a feeling of gratitude and derech eretz?

Rav Shmulevitz explains that the only possible solution to this question is that Moshe Rabbeinu was so cognizant of the Torah obligation of gratitude that the only possible way he could understand the command of Hashem was for him to send others, and not that he should go himself.

The depth and degree of our obligation to express gratitude is astonishing. When Yosef Hatzaddik’s brothers sentenced him to death, Reuven alone stepped forward to save him.

Chazal (Bereishis Rabbah 84:15) tell us what Reuven was thinking at that moment.

“Yosef counted me among my brothers, and I shouldn’t save him?”

Ever since Reuven had moved his father’s belongings from the tent of Bilhah into his mother’s tent, he had been fasting and repenting, fearful that he had lost his place among the shevatim.

When Yosef related his dream, he told of eleven stars bowing to him. For Reuven, the number eleven — all other shevatim besides Yosef — revealed that he was still being counted among the brothers.

The Sichos Mussar points out that the shevatim had found Yosef guilty, and Reuven had been present when the sentence had been passed and had agreed with it. When he interceded to save Yosef it was not because he disagreed with the verdict, but only because he felt an obligation of hakaras hatov.

And what had Yosef done for Reuven? It was not a strenuous effort, or even a conscious decision. All he had done was relate a dream that he had had.

But our obligation to show gratitude doesn’t depend on why a person — or even an inanimate object — did us a favor.

Seven of the ten plagues with which Hashem struck the Egyptians were performed through Moshe Rabbeinu. But the first three were performed through Aharon. The waters had shielded Moshe as a child, and the earth had covered for him during the incident with the Egyptian overseer, so it would not be right for Moshe Rabbeinu to strike them.

Hakaras hatov is much more than appreciating a benefactor’s efforts. It is a fundamental Torah obligation.

Expressing and exhibiting gratitude towards our Creator is crucial part of avodas Hashem. Developing this vital middah has a great many benefits.

For instance, most conflicts occur between people who knew each other previously. In a great many cases, if one party to the conflict wracks his memory and looks deep into his heart he will surely find a reason — however small and minor — to feel gratitude toward the person he now sees as a bitter enemy. Even if the other person never intended to do this favor, if some benefit came through him that suffices to obligate us to have hakaras hatov.