When I first began to study Judaism in my 20s, I expected that my study would involve learning about Jewish ritual, holidays and prayer. What I didn’t anticipate, and what has become a most gratifying surprise, is how much of our tradition focuses on middot – on the enhancement of positive character traits.
I was a pretty decent, average person before I began learning and living Jewishly. But I’ve learned and grown emotionally from the lessons of Judaism. Said another way, Judaism is so much more than lighting candles, eating certain foods and saying prayers. The Torah is also loaded with guidance for personal growth.
In this week’s Torah portion of Va’era, we find a detailed description of the first seven plagues that G-d sent to Egypt in order to convince Pharaoh to set the Israelite slaves free. The litany of plagues is a central part of the Passover seder. This week and next week, we learn about the 10 plagues in depth.
The first is the plague of dam – blood. In order to prove to Pharaoh that Moshe and Aaron were messengers of the Divine and not mere magicians, G-d turned the Nile River, along with all the water in Egypt, to blood. This, as with all the early plagues, was accomplished through the hands of Moshe and Aaron.
G-d said to Moshe, “Say to Aaron ‘Take your staff and stretch your hand over the waters of Egypt… and they shall become blood.’” (Genesis 7:19)
Why did G-d ask Moshe to tell Aaron what to do? Why didn’t Moshe just turn the water to blood himself? According to the Midrash, G-d did originally ask Moshe to smite the water. And, in Moshe’s response, there is a lesson in character refinement.
Moshe objected saying, “Is it right that I should punish the very river that sustained me? When I was an infant and my mother Yocheved placed me in a basket and placed the basket in the river, the waters of the Nile protected me and kept me afloat until Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, could rescue me. How can I now smite the very water that sheltered me?”
G-d was pleased with Moshe’s sensitivity and directed Moshe to tell Aaron, who does not have the same loyalty to the Nile River, to instigate the plague.
What lesson is there in this for us? From Moshe’s response, we can learn the extent to which gratitude is a Jewish value. In Hebrew, this value is called hakaras hatov – appreciating the good. If G-d is pleased by Moshe’s hakaras hatov to the inanimate Nile River, how much more so are we to understand that we must express gratitude to anyone who shows us kindness? If G-d is pleased by Moshe’s unwillingness to stretch his hand over an inanimate body of water so as not to show it disrespect, how careful must we be to avoid disrespecting another human being?
Further, it should occur to us that if we must be so careful to express hakaras hatov to another person who was kind to us, how much more so should we be grateful to G-d, from whom all goodness flows?
I have a favorite Hebrew expression that is related to this idea. Gam zu l’tova – which means, “this is also for the good.” Gam zu l’tova is an attitude. It’s an attitude of trust in G-d that, however things seem, they are for the good. This attitude, like all of spiritual development, doesn’t just appear overnight. It’s an attitude that has to be nurtured, exactly like a muscle has to be worked in order to grow.
In fact, it’s been my experience that all Jewish growth requires practice. After all, nobody expects to complete a marathon the first day of practice. Nobody expects to perform brain surgery the first day of medical school. Similarly, nobody can open an unfamiliar Hebrew prayer book and experience their prayer to reach ecstatic spiritual heights the very first time. Nobody can read a verse from the Torah and immediately understand every nuance in each of the 70 levels of the Torah. And none of us are born with perfect character.
One of Judaism’s most engaging lessons is that it’s all a process. All of us need time – a lifetime! - to develop into our more refined selves, most spiritual selves.