The Egyptians were struck by ten plagues before they agreed to set Am Yisrael
free from servitude. Of them, we read in our weekly Torah portion, Parashat
Va’era, of seven plagues: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, pestilence, boils and
When we look carefully at the verses in the Torah that deal with
the plagues that came down on the heads of the people of Egypt, we notice what
seems like a technical detail: Not all the plagues were brought about by the
central leader – Moshe, sent to liberate Am Yisrael and take them out of Egypt.
Some were actually brought about by his brother Aharon.
Was there a
reason for this “division of labor,” or did it happen without previous intent?
Our sages tell us in the Midrash that the division was done
There were plagues that Moshe could not bring about
because they were done by hitting water or earth. Since in the past he had been
saved from various hardships by the elements of water and earth, Moshe could not
hit them, since he owed his life to them. If Moshe would have struck them, he
would have shown them ingratitude; therefore, those plagues were brought about
And here we pause and ask: Is there any significance to
gratitude toward inanimate objects such as water or earth? Would the water have
been insulted or the earth offended if Moshe had hit them? What is the meaning
of this strange Midrash source telling us of feelings of gratitude toward water
and earth? This Midrash, and the question that follows it, bring us to a
surprising conclusion: Gratitude is not meant to benefit someone else, but
rather it benefits the grateful person himself. Conversely, ingratitude not only
harms the one who did the favor, but also – and especially – the beneficiary who
Man instinctively recognizes a favor done for him, and
knows to appreciate and return the favor to his benefactor. But the pride that
also exists in man’s heart gets in the way of this feeling and does not allow
him to recognize that a favor was done for him. We all recognize the phenomenon
of people who are willing to pay a heavy price just so as not to need a favor
from someone else. They are not capable of experiencing the indignity of
receiving a favor, and when they have a favor done for them against their will,
they try to find an explanation for why the benefactor was actually doing
himself the favor.
A folk tale is told of one of the well-known
philanthropists of Jerusalem who would bestow upon any needy person a few small
pebbles. When asked for the meaning of this strange tradition, he replied, “I
know that whoever receives a favor from me will ultimately throw rocks on me,
so, I would rather he have small stones and not large ones.”
of gratitude is righteous and noble. If we manage not to blur it, we sense it
toward any source of joy, whether it is a person, an animal or even an inanimate
object. This feeling might have been slightly harmed in Moshe’s heart if he
himself would have hit the water and the earth, which had protected him in the
past. Neither of the two elements would have suffered from this ingratitude. The
loser would have been Moshe himself, whose gentleness and nobility would have
become rough and insensitive.
Therefore, Aharon was the one who hit the
water and the earth.
Again we discover, in a seemingly marginal detail,
an important message so necessary to our lives. From a distance of thousands of
years, we discover that the stories in the Torah hold within them valuable and
beneficial messages that contribute tremendously to ourselves and to our
environment if we only notice them and try to walk in the footsteps of our
nation’s great leaders, who outlined for us a way of life based on sensitivity,
values and morals.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is the rabbi of the Western
Wall and its affiliate holy sites.