One of the most fundamental values in Judaism and in life is Gratitude. The first words we say when we wake up in the morning are Modeh Ani… “Thank you God for returning my soul to me”. Thank God I am alive! We then go on to recite a whole bunch of blessings in the morning service to ensure we don’t take any of life’s gifts for granted. We thank God for our clothes, for our eyes, for the ability to walk upright, even for having dry land to walk upon. (Idalia reminds us of the importance of this blessing.)
We know it is easy to take these things for granted and too often we only note their importance when we lose them. It’s human nature to forget the good things in life and the only way to overcome this is to regularly remind ourselves of our blessings.
Everyone agrees that it’s necessary and crucial to show gratitude to those whom it is obvious to do so, such as to our parents for giving us life. Or to anyone who has done us favours and helped us. It’s generally pretty easy to say thanks to people who have assisted us in a very meaningful way financially, emotionally or otherwise. But what if someone did you some good but it’s a mixed bag. They have helped out in one way but they may have also hurt you in another. Do we still have to express thanks and appreciation to such a person? What if there’s a visceral dislike of the other because of the hurt they have caused, but at the same time, they have done good for us – what do we do then? How do we behave towards such a person?
The Torah addressed this concern in last week’s parsha. It does it in an implied manner in the context of discussing different nations and the permissibility of converts from those nations to marry a Jew. It states that a male from the Biblical nations of Ammon or Moab can never do so as those two nations showed themselves to be extremely callous to the Israelites when they left Egypt by not offering any assistance to these Jewish refugees at the time. On the other hands, an Egyptian convert can indeed marry into the Jewish people in the third generation, i.e. the grandchild of the convert. So while the men from Ammon and Moab are always off limits, those from Egypt can seamlessly marry a Jew without any preconditions after a few generations.
Now this is strange because when one thinks of the awful things these Biblical nations did to the Israelites, one would think the Egyptians would be on the top of the list of evil empires since they’re the ones who enslaved the Jewish people so mercilessly. And yet the Torah instructs us not to regard them as bad as we would Ammon or Moab.
That is a bit odd. Why are the Egyptian looked upon more favorably? The Torah tells us why. “Because you were guests in their land.” And as Rashi points out, “You should not utterly abhor the Egyptians even though they threw your baby boys into the Nile, because they were your hosts in your time of need.” Rashi is referring to the time earlier on when Jacob and family joined Joseph in Egypt during the famine in Canaan and they ended up living securely there for many years before being enslaved.
So here you have a nation who did horrible and despicable acts of immorality – and Rashi seems to be purposely focusing on the worst things they did, even worse than enslavement – the killing of Jewish babies. And yet Egypt is not as much of a pariah nation as others because they helped the nascent Jewish people early on, before enslaving them.
The Torah is sensitizing us to the nuances of gratitude. Because as terrible as these Egyptians ended up being to the Israelites, it wasn’t always that way. We can never lose sight of the good things they did for us before their abhorrent behavior.
I recall once citing this passage when I participated on the March of the Living. This is the program for high school students who spend a week visiting concentration camps in Poland and then go on to Israel afterwards. The Polish government insisted that all tours have a Polish guide accompany each bus. While we were travelling around I was curious about some of the areas we were passing and suggested to one of the staff members to let the Polish guide give us some insight as to where we were and some history of the places we were passing. The March of the Living staff member refused and I will never forget what she said. “We want these kids to have just one impression of Poland: That is was a graveyard for the Jewish people.”
I immediately told her she was wrong. Because if you know anything about Jewish history, you will know that for five centuries between 1000 and 1500 the Jewish people were expelled from almost every European nation. Not just Spain but Hungary, Austria, Germany, France, Provence, Portugal, England, Crimea etc. And where did they all go, who took them in? Most ended up in one nation and one land – Poland.
Most arrows point into Poland. Yes, Poland did eventually become a graveyard for the Jewish people but it wasn’t only that and we cannot lose sight of the fact that they were the only nation that were kind enough to accept Jews and allow them to live there in relative peace for 500 years when no other European nation was willing to do so.
Just as we are instructed to view the Egyptian experience as a mixed bag of good and bad, so too we need to recognize that Poland was the same. Life and History is seldom so black and white to be neatly categorized as being either all good or all evil. Yes we need to recognize and fight for justice when evil is done by nations. But on the other hand we need to express appreciation when those self-same nations have done good for us.
The same holds true for those people in our lives whom we may not really like for the pain they have caused but who, at another time, have done tremendous good for us. As the Torah teaches about the Egyptians, they were anything but complete darlings to us in our history. But that doesn’t take away from the good they did for us as well.
The Hebrew expression for gratitude is הכרת הטוב which literally means “Recognizing the Good”. Judaism and simple decency demands “recognizing the good” that we have received both nationally and personally – even if it wasn’t always that way. And for that there are just two simple words: Thank You.
All the old paintings on the tombs,
They do the sand dance…
Foreign types with their hookah pipes say
Walk like an Egyptian