Parashat Hukat: Appreciate it While You Have it
"The nation settled in Kadesh; Miriam died there and was buried there. The nation had no water…" (20:1-2).
Why did Beneh Yisrael suddenly run out of water when Miriam died?
Rashi explains that as Beneh Yisrael traveled through the desert, a miraculous, mobile well accompanied them to ensure that they would have a constant, adequate water supply. This well was provided in the merit of Miriam, an exceptionally righteous woman and prophetess, and once she died, the well was taken away, leaving the people without water.
The question, however, remains, why didn’t the well remain even after Miriam’s death? Was her great merit insufficient to continue providing the nation with water even after she passed on?
The Keli Yakar (Rav Shelomo Efrayim Luntschitz of Prague, 1550-1619) offers a remarkable explanation. He notes that when the Torah reports the death of Miriam, it simply states that she died and was buried. No mention is made of eulogies or mourning, in contrast to the Torah’s accounts of the deaths of Aharon and Moshe, where it is explicitly mentioned that the nation wept for the loss of their leader. It seems, the Keli Yakar observes, that the people were not moved by Miriam’s death, and did not properly eulogize or mourn for her. They failed to appreciate the fact that their constant water supply was directly and solely due to her. God therefore took away the well so that the people would appreciate what an exceptionally righteous person they lost. As they did not properly appreciate the miracle of the well and Miriam’s greatness which provided it, it had to be taken away.
The Keli Yakar’s insight teaches us the importance of appreciating everything we have while we have it. If we take everything we have for granted, then God is compelled to take it away, Heaven forbid, so we can appreciate just how valuable it is.
Unfortunately, we take so many things for granted in our lives. People do not generally appreciate their vision until, God forbid, they or someone they know suffers vision loss. We do not appreciate our health until, God forbid, we or someone we know takes ill. We do not appreciate our children until we meet a childless couple.
Each morning, we are required to recite a series of Berachot thanking Hashem for things that may appear simple and trivial. First and foremost, we recite "Elokai Neshama" to thank God for restoring our soul, for enabling us to wake up in the morning. We recite the Beracha of "Poke’ah Ivrim" to thank Him for our eyesight, "Malbish Arumim" to thank Him for our clothing, "Zokef Kefufim" to thank Him for allowing us to stand up straight, and "She’asa Li Kol Sorki" to thank Him for our shoes. We receive all these gifts, and so many more, each and every day, and our Sages who composed the liturgy wanted to ensure that we thank God for each one of them.
These blessings, like most of our blessings, are not fully appreciated until they are taken away from us. I once saw somebody I know running out of a burning building in a bathrobe; he was at the gym when a fire erupted, and he had no time to put on his clothes. This is when I appreciated the Beracha of "Malbish Arumim." When we hear of somebody who wrenched his back during the night, we appreciate the Beracha of "Zokef Kefufim." The Beracha of "She’asa Li Kol Sorki" came into focus for me after a bizarre experience I had once when I traveled to Mexico City to deliver a lecture in a large synagogue there. The hotel in which I stayed offered a free shoeshine service, whereby guests leave their shoes outside their room at night and then have it returned shined early the next morning. So, I left my shoes outside the room, and when I opened my door the next morning to go to the synagogue for Shaharit and my lecture…they were not there. I went down to the lobby to meet the people who had come to take me to the synagogue, and they saw me there without any shoes. This is when I appreciated the Beracha of "She’asa Li Kol Sorki," that even the shoes on our feet should never be taken for granted.
Rav Avigdor Miller (1908-2001) would occasionally put his head in a sink full of water for several moments, until he needed to come out of the water for air. He explained that he wanted to feel grateful for the air we breathe at every moment of our lives. In order to truly feel appreciative, he deprived himself of air for several moments, during which time he was able to appreciate how precious the air is.
Part of the reason why it’s so difficult for us to appreciate our blessings in life is because we’re so busy complaining about our "problems." These "problems" are things like traffic jams, a flat tire, a head cold, a misbehaving child, or a broken piece of furniture. When our emotional energy is expended on worrying about these "problems," we are not able to feel happy and grateful for our blessings – that we have a spouse, children, a roof over our heads, a source of livelihood, friends, clothing to wear, and so on.
One Rabbi recommended that we each compile a list of ten blessings in our life and keep this piece of paper with us when we pray the daily Amida. When we reach the Modim section, in which we thank God "for Your wonders and favors that are given at all times," we should look at the list so we can be grateful for the particular blessings in our lives. This will help us experience true gratitude, and appreciate what we have while we have it, so that the Almighty will continue showering us with these blessings and not, Heaven forbid, take them away from us.