Parasha Shmot 2012

Recognizing the Good Done to Us by Others
This week we begin the Book of Exodus in our Torah reading.  The Book of Genesis left us last week at a high point – Jacob’s family had settled in Egypt, in the Land of Goshen, under the protection of one of their own, Joseph, second in command to the Pharaoh.  The Pharaoh was clearly appreciative of all that Joseph had done to protect Egypt during the seven years of famine, and welcomed his family to Egypt. But following the death of Joseph, things changed. The text tells us that “there arose a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.” That Pharaoh enslaved the Jewish people and treated them harshly indeed.

How could it be that the succeeding Pharaoh could have been so ungrateful for what Joseph had done for his father?  How could he have not “known” about the service that Joseph had done for the royal family?  I imagine he chose “not to know”.  In contrast to this example of gross ingratitude, consider the following story, told by R. Joseph Telushkin in his book You Shall Be Holy – A Book of Jewish Ethics: Some years ago, Texas senator John Tower was nominated to become Secretary of Defense.  The Senate confirmation process became quite sordid when rumors started to circulate (many of which were later shown to be untrue) depicting Tower as a drunk, a womanizer, and corrupt.  While most of the Democrats instinctively turned against the Republican Tower (who had started his career as a Democrat), Senator Christopher Dodd, a Democrat, rose to speak in the Senate:  “Twenty-two years ago, my father, Senator Thomas Dodd, was on trial before this same Senate.  He was accused of financial misconduct . . . . [And there was one senator in particular] who stood up and defended my father and who made sure he was treated fairly, and that man was Senator John Tower.  We Dodds don’t forget someone who does us a favor.  I owe John Tower.  I owe him the same fairness and the same careful judgment he showed to my father twenty-two years ago.”  Later, Dodd broke ranks with his party and voted for Tower’s confirmation.    Now THAT’S how one should treat a person who has done good to your family!  In Hebrew we call it “hakarat hatov” – acknowledging the good that someone has done for us. We can show our appreciation not only to the person who has done that good for us, but also to their children and loved ones.  In fact, that can be even a more meaningful way of gratitude. Unfortunately, there has been many times in the history of the Jewish people when a “pharaoh” or leader arises who does not know Joseph.   In the 11th century, Muslims ruled Spain.  The Jews prospered under Muslim rule and commerce, literature and poetry flourished.  Jews were active in government service, and no one rose higher than Samuel Ibn Naghrela, the chief minister of the Berber Kingdom of Granada.  He became known as Samuel HaNagid, Samuel the Prince.  He commanded Muslim armies in the field – something not only unheard of, but actually forbidden under Islamic law.  He was an outstanding Talmudic scholar, a patron of the arts, a distinguished Arabic calligrapher, and one of the four great masters of medieval Hebrew poetry.  He patronized not only Jewish poets, but leading Muslim poets as well.  He once, in his writings, immodestly described himself as “the David of my generation.”  Immodest, perhaps, but also quite true! Yet Samuel’s service to the government and to his country raised some resentment among some.  In the Islam of his time, Jews were to be tolerated and protected in a society, as long as they were humble.  Despite his service to the Kingdom, he, and his co-religionists, did not fit the mold that the Jew was supposed to conform to in Islamic society.  Following Samuel Ha-Nagid’s death in 1056, his son, Joseph, was appointed in his stead.  He built a splendid palace overlooking the capital, which inflamed the masses.  There ensued a popular uprising in which Joseph was assassinated, and the Jewish quarter of Granada was attacked by the mob and burned to the ground.  That is a lesson in how NOT to treat the son of a man who has done you good! Our sages said, "Whoever denies the favors done for him by his friend will in the end deny the favors done for him by the Almighty." They derived this from the story of Pharaoh. The Torah begins by telling us that Pharaoh “did not know Joseph.”  Later Pharaoh asks Moses, “Who is G-d?”  Failing to appreciate what has been done for you by beings of flesh and blood is the first step that leads to eventually cutting oneself off from the Source of All.  Let us rather emulate Jethro, Moses’ father in law. The Torah tells us that when Moses runs away to Midian he comes to a well where the daughters of Jethro were watering their flocks. But a group of shepherds comes and drives them away. Moses saves them and waters their sheep.  When the daughters return home, they tell their father Jethro, “An Egyptian man saved us from the shepherds and he even drew water for us and watered the sheep.”  Jethro was astonished that his daughters did not invite the man home. “Where is he? Why did you leave the man? We must invite him to dinner.”  According to the midrash, the daughters explained that he was a fugitive from Egypt and had a price on his head.  Nevertheless, Jethro insisted that the summon Moses to their home. He recognized a favor when it was done and he realized the moral responsibility that comes with being the beneficiary of a favor. He understood that one of the most basic ethical traits a person must practice is to be appreciative for what one has received. G-d rewarded Jethro by giving him the best son-in-law a man could possibly hope for – Moses married Jethro’s daughter, Zipporah! (Rabbi Yissocher Frand) History gives us examples of the best of behavior and the worst of behavior. May we remember to show our appreciation and gratitude to those who have done us good. Shabbat Shalom    

Rabbi Marc D. Rudolph
Congregation Beth Shalom
Naperville, Illinois