Parashat Matot: Showing Appreciation
In Parashat Matot, G-d commands Moshe to lead a war against Midyan, who initiated a scheme to lead Beneh Yisrael to sin which resulted in the deaths of thousands of people among the nation. The Midrash notes that whereas G-d instructed Moshe to wage this war, he did not go out to battle. Instead, he sent 12,000 men led by Pinhas to fight Midyan, while he remained behind. How, the Midrash asks, could Moshe Rabbenu shirk his responsibility? If G-d commanded him to go and wage war, how could he delegate this difficult task to others?
The Midrash offers a remarkable answer. Moshe owed a debt of gratitude to Midyan, where he found refuge when he was forced to flee from Egypt many years earlier. As we read in Parashat Shemot, Moshe killed an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating an Israelite slave, and Pharaoh heard about the incident and sought to kill Moshe. Moshe immediately fled and found safety in Midyan, where he married the daughter of Yitro and worked for him as a shepherd. Moshe owed his life to Midyan, and it would thus have been inappropriate for him to lead a war against it.
Moshe did not arrive at this logic on his own. He reached this conclusion on the basis of G-d’s commands many years earlier during the ten plagues. G-d commanded that specifically Aharon – as opposed to Moshe – should turn the water of Egypt into blood, and produce vermin from its dust. It would have been improper for Moshe to strike the water, which protected him when he was an infant and his mother placed him in a basket in the river to save him from the Egyptians, and to strike the earth, which he used to cover the remains of the taskmaster whom he killed. The fundamental value of gratitude dictates that one does not "throw a rock into the well from which he drank," that we must not cause harm to those who have been good to us. And thus even though G-d wished to strike the water and earth of Egypt, He did not want Moshe to carry out this task, given the debt of gratitude he owed.
Recalling this precedent, Moshe understood that he was not the one to wage battle against Midyan. He realized that when G-d instructed him to go out to war, He meant that Moshe should mobilize and send an army, rather than go fight himself.
The Torah value of gratitude extends even to sworn enemies of our nation – like Midyan – and even to inanimate objects – such as water and earth.
It is told that Rav Yisrael Gustman, who served as a Rosh Yeshiva in Jerusalem, would water the plants and bushes outside his yeshiva each day. When asked about this practice, he explained that he survived the Holocaust, spending a considerable amount of time hiding in fields. He felt a deep sense of gratitude to bushes and plants for helping him escape from the Nazis, and he thus felt it was appropriate to personally care for the yeshiva’s garden.
If this is the Torah’s attitude when it comes to plants, then it certainly applies to family members and friends. If Moshe owed a debt of gratitude to the waters of Egypt, shouldn’t we show appreciation to our spouses? If Moshe was to show respect to dirt for the service it provided him, shouldn’t we respect the people who work for us? If Moshe felt grateful to a wicked nation like Midyan, shouldn’t we be profoundly grateful to our parents, our siblings, our friends and our neighbors?
The story of this war should thus serve as an important reminder to all of us to always take note of the favors done for us, of all the benefit we receive from other people, and to feel a sincere sense of gratitude which ought to be regularly expressed in both words and actions.