Chukat 5781: The Debt of Gratitude
Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1 )
GOOD MORNING! I have written several times on the incredible benefits of being a grateful person and that the Hebrew word Yehudi – “Jew” is derived from the Hebrew word for thank you. Thus, the very definition of being a Jew is that at your core you should be grateful.
There are many, many studies that conclusively show that people who have an “attitude of gratitude” are significantly happier with their lives. In previous columns I have explained why this is true. If interested, you can find one of the prior columns here.
People who focus on being grateful and appreciative can apply this attitude to the past (being appreciative of a teacher or other elements of childhood), present (not taking current blessings for granted), and future (looking forward with an optimistic attitude). This is a very worthwhile area of self-growth.
However, in this week’s column I would like to put aside the benefits of gratitude and focus on the obligation of being grateful and thankful to others. Sometimes we take kindness for granted and, even worse, we often adopt an expectation – as if it is owed to us. I am reminded of the following joke:
A little old lady sold pretzels on the street corner for fifty cents each. Every day, a young lawyer would exit his office building at lunch and, as he passed her pretzel stand, he’d leave two quarters. However, he never took a pretzel. He would just smile on be on his way. This went on for many years.
Though they never spoke, every day he’d gently lay down two quarters, they’d make eye contact, and she would nod her gratitude as he walked away without a pretzel. One day, as the lawyer passed her stand and placed his fifty cents, the pretzel woman softly touched his arm and finally spoke to him:
“Sir, I appreciate your business and you are my best customer. But I need to tell you something. The price of pretzels has gone up to seventy-five cents.”
What are the parameters of owing someone a “thank you”? If a person feels entitled to something, does he owe a debt of thanks? The feeling of owing something to someone can be rather unpleasant. As King Solomon writes, “A borrower is a slave to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). We therefore often go to great lengths to avoid feeling indebted to another – even to the point that we often ascribe selfish motivation for their kindness (e.g. “he didn’t do it for me, he did it for himself”).
So let’s consider to whom we may owe a debt of thanks. To the airline agent who is getting paid to help you book your flight? How about a waitress who is being paid to bring you your food (with the added hopes for a tip)? What about thanking soldiers in uniform when we see them out and about?
Even when we thank them, do we mumble some barely audible token of appreciation or do we look them in the eye and convey a real expression of thankfulness? Most of us can improve at being in the moment and truly communicating a genuine sense of appreciation.
But let’s take it a step further. How about if someone actually did something primarily for their own selfish reasons and we became a beneficiary almost as an afterthought. Do we still owe a debt of gratitude? In this week’s Torah reading we have a rather astonishing example of this:
Og, king of Bashan, went out against them, he and his entire people, to do battle in Edrei. Hashem said to Moses, “Do not fear him, for into your hand I have given him...” (Numbers 21:33-34).
This week’s parsha ends with the tale of the remarkable encounter between Moses and Og, the giant-king of Bashan. Og had been one of the Nephilim (those who fell or “fallen angels” see Rashi on Genesis 6:4); a race of giants from the time before the Great Flood. He was known as “the escapee” because he survived the destruction of the flood (see Rashi on Genesis 14:13). The verse tells us that Moses was worried about meeting Og in a war.
At first glance, this seems a little odd. The Children of Israel had just soundly decimated Sichon king of Cheshbon, who had a reputation as one of the mightiest warriors in the world. Why was Moses suddenly concerned about fighting Og?
Rashi (21:34) explains that, almost 500 years prior, Og had done a favor for Abraham, the forefather of the Children of Israel. Moses was afraid that the merit of this kindness that Og had done would offer him protection, perhaps even rendering him invulnerable to them. What kindness had Og done for Abraham that would offer him such protection?
In Genesis (14:1-12), the Torah relates some of the details of an epic war that embroiled nine kingdoms. Four kings went to war against five kings and soundly defeated them as well as many other nations that were in their path. One of the nations that was utterly destroyed was the Rephaim, a nation of giants, and Og was the lone survivor (“fugitive”). In addition, one of the five kings who was defeated was the king of Sodom, where Abraham’s nephew, Lot, resided.
Og came to Abraham to inform him that his nephew had been taken captive by the four kings. This was the “great” kindness that Og did for Abraham that had Moses concerned about meeting Og in battle. However, this is difficult to comprehend. Rashi (Genesis 14:13) very clearly states that the reason Og came to inform Abraham what had happened to Lot was for his own selfish reasons.
Abraham was married to Sarah who, according to the Talmud (Megillah 15a), was one of the most beautiful women to have ever lived. Og hoped that Abraham would feel impelled to enter the war (to rescue his nephew) and in the course of the fighting he would be killed; thereby clearing a path for Og to be with Sarah. Thus, Og had very selfish reasons for giving Abraham the news about his nephew: Og actually hoped Abraham would die! How does this end up being such a merit that Moses, 500 years later, is still concerned that Og would be protected?
Imagine for a moment that someone is attacked by a mugger and struck upon the head. Following this unfortunate event, the victim heads to the nearest hospital to be examined. The doctors decide to perform a CT scan of his head to be sure that there isn’t any more extensive damage. Miraculously, the CT scan reveals that while there is no permanent damage from the mugger’s blow, there is a tumor that is slowly growing inside the skull that must be removed.
This tumor would have very likely killed this person and, had this person not been mugged, perhaps it would not have been caught in time. Does this victim now owe a debt of gratitude to the mugger? How is this different from the story of Og?
It is actually very different. In the case of the mugger, the victim never wanted to suffer a severe blow to the head. That it, providentially, happened to work out is really just the hand of the Almighty. However, in the case of Og, Abraham was well aware of risks he was taking by entering a war with the four kings. Still, Abraham desired to have the information that Og was providing.
The fact that Og had his own agenda doesn’t lessen the kindness to Abraham; Og was providing Abraham a service that he wanted and Abraham was appreciative. Doing a kindness for someone as great as Abraham was reason enough to give Moses pause. Therefore, the Almighty had to reassure him.
The Torah is teaching us a remarkable lesson in hakaras hatov (recognizing the good that we have been given). How often have you been at a wedding or bar mitzvah and listen to others making disparaging remarks about the host/hostess: “Can you believe how much money they spent on this?” Or perhaps attended some lavish “Gatsby-esque” party and hear others make snide remarks about the hosts being pathetic social climbers and “nouveau riche,” all the while munching on their food and drinking their wine?
We hate to feel that we owe a debt. We therefore naturally work very hard to try to ascribe a selfish motivation to a benefactor that would seem to paint them as self-serving, or in the very least as not totally altruistic. We do this to lessen our feeling of obligation to this person. This is wrong. The Torah is teaching us that we must appreciate any kindness that is done for us, irrespective of the benefactor’s motivation.
Chukat, Numbers 19:1 - 22:1
The Jewish people wander the desert for their 38th year. The laws of the red heifer (Parah Adumah) are stated; it was burnt with cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet thread. The ashes were then used in a purification ceremony for those who had come in contact with the dead. Strangely enough, all who were involved in the making of the ashes became ritually impure, but all who were sprinkled with them became ritually pure. It is a lesson that we must do the commandments even if we can't understand them. God decreed the commandments. They are for our benefit. We may not always know why.
Miriam, Moses’ sister and a prophetess, dies. The portable well that had accompanied the Israelites on her merit ceased to flow. The people rebel against Moses and Aaron because of the lack of water. The Almighty tells Moses to speak to the rock for water. Moses gets angry and hits the rock instead and water rushes forth. However, the Almighty punishes Moses and Aaron for not sanctifying Him by forbidding their entry into the land of Israel. (It pays to follow instructions and to withhold anger!)
Aaron dies. His son, Elazar, is appointed the new High Priest. The Canaanite king of Arad attacks the Israelites and is soundly defeated. There is another rebellion over the food and water, which is answered by a plague of poisonous snakes. Moses prays for the people and is instructed by God to put the image of a snake on a high pole. All who saw it would think of God, repent, and live.
The Israelites then annihilate the Amorites and Bashanites who not only refused us peaceful passage through their lands, but also attacked us. There are many questions that need to be asked. Please consult the original work and a good commentary.
Once I internalized that life owes me nothing I began to appreciate it.