Parashat Shemot- Gratitude for Our First Grade Teacher
When G-d appears to Moshe at the burning bush and instructs him to go to Pharaoh and demand that he release Beneh Yisrael from bondage, Moshe initially refuses. He claims, “Lo Ish Debarim Anochi Gam Temol Gam Shilshom” – for a long time, he had a speech impediment which made him the wrong person for this job (4:10).
The Hida (Rav Haim Yosef David Azulai, 1724-1807), in his Debarim Ahadim, raises the simple question of why Moshe refused such a vital mission. Beneh Yisrael were suffering and dying under Egyptian tyranny, and G-d now decided to send Moshe to lead them to freedom. How could he refuse? Why would Moshe give “excuses” why he shouldn’t accept this mission? What valid excuse could their possibly be to refuse to undertake such a vitally important responsibility?
The Hida’s answer is remarkable. He explained that when Moshe says that he is not an “Ish Debarim” (literally, “a man of words”), he means not that he is physically incapable of this mission, but rather that it would be inappropriate for him to accept this task. Moshe owed an enormous debt of gratitude to Pharaoh and the Egyptian royal family, as he was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter in the palace after she found him in the river. It was the Egyptian royal family that cared for Moshe after his mother had to place him in a basket in the river to hide him from those seeking to kill him. Moshe felt incapable of now turning around and becoming Pharaoh’s adversary, demanding that he release his slaves and bringing plagues when he refused.
The Hida proceeded to explain that in truth, G-d chose Moshe for this role precisely because of the debt of gratitude that Moshe owed to Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s crime against Beneh Yisrael began with ingratitude. The Torah tells that Pharaoh “did not know Yosef” (1:8), referring to his decision to ignore Yosef’s immense contribution to the country. Yosef saved the Egyptians from famine, and worked to ensure that Egypt became wealthy and prosperous during the famine years, as other countries purchased grain from them. Yet, instead of rewarding Yosef’s work by treating his people kindly, Pharaoh mistrusted them and subjected them to torture and torment. Pharaoh was the ultimate ingrate. And he was thus punished “measure for measure” by having Moshe, who was raised in the royal palace, confront him and demand in G-d’s Name that he release the slaves. As he was ungrateful to Yosef, it was specifically Moshe, somebody who owed him a debt of gratitude, who came against him.
In explaining his refusal to G-d, Moshe noted that he was not the right person for the job “Gam Mi’tmol Gam Mi’shilshom” – for a long time. This means that the kindness he had received from Pharaoh many years earlier prevented him from approaching Pharaoh. The fundamental trait of “Hakarat Ha’tob” – gratitude – requires us to remember kindnesses performed for us years earlier. Gratitude does not only mean thanking the person who held the door open for us or the waiter who served our food (though it certainly includes this), but also appreciating that which was done for us in the distant past – just as Moshe felt grateful to Pharaoh even decades later, when he was already a grown adult.
I once received a call from a woman asking me if I could speak at a function she was arranging. My busy schedule does not allow me to accept every invitation to speak, and so I was not initially prepared to agree. As we were talking, however, I told her that her name sounded familiar, and she reminded me that she was my first grade teacher, who taught me to read and write. I immediately accepted her invitation. How could I not? Did I not owe her an enormous debt of gratitude? She worked and toiled to teach me the basics that without which, I could not accomplish anything. The very least I could do was to agree to speak at her function.
We cannot even begin to imagine the gratitude we owe to our and our children’s teachers, who work hard to educate their students for modest – to put it mildly – salaries and often under difficult conditions. Even years and decades later, we must never forget the vital role they played in our or our children’s development.
This is also true of our parents, spouses, business associates and friends. Our mothers endured nine months of pregnancy, labor, sleepless nights and the countless other challenges of parenting so we could come into this world, grow and thrive. Do we not owe them our time and affection? Our spouses share their lives with us. Can we ever even begin to repay them?
Many Rabbis have taught that we are called “Yehudim” because expressing thanks – “Toda” – is the most basic trait by which we must live. It is only by developing our sense of gratitude to the people around us that we can begin to appreciate all that the Almighty does for us, and thus happily commit ourselves to fulfill His will and serve Him every day of our lives.