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Cultivating Thanks Within Our Children

In this week’s parsha, we encounter something unusual. While most of the 10 plagues are initiated by Moshe, his brother Aharon initiates the first three plagues. The Midrash Shemot Rabbah explains that the river protected Moshe when he was placed there as a baby, and the dust of the ground helped Moshe bury the Egyptian he killed. It was therefore inappropriate for Moshe to strike either the river or the dust of the ground to start those first plagues. The implication is that Moshe owed gratitude to the river and the dust, and therefore it wasn’t fitting for him to smite them to bring about their respective plagues.

While this seems like a nice idea, an obvious question arises from this Midrash. The river and dirt are inanimate objects, in no need of thanks directed toward them. Why would Moshe be required to express thanks to such objects?

The answer appears to be simple, yet incredibly profound. Moshe’s hakarat hatov to the river and the dust wasn’t for the benefit of those inanimate objects. Rather, it was to benefit Moshe himself—to cultivate within him a sense of gratitude to anyone or anything that helped him throughout his life. Upon realizing the ways in which the river and the dust helped him, Moshe was meant to feel true appreciation and gratitude toward them—such that he couldn’t possibly strike them.

In 2018, New York Times bestselling author A.J. Jacobs embarked upon a mission to thank every person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee—from the workers at the coffee place, to the construction workers who paved the road upon which the coffee was delivered, to the farmers in South America who grew the coffee beans. His resulting book, Thanks a Thousand, describes his journey and “reveals secrets about how gratitude can make us all happier, more generous, and more connected.” He notes that the main goal behind his project was not so that all those people could be thanked. While they appreciated his thanks in the moment, it had no lasting effect on them. Rather, he did it for himself. In each of our lives, argues Jacobs, we have many things to be thankful for, yet we don’t pay attention to them, focusing instead on the challenging parts of our lives. Through this journey, Jacobs realized all the people involved in the simplest aspects of his day—and the myriad of things that must go right for his everyday life to proceed. Focusing on these phenomena made him a much happier person. Jacobs learned this crucial lesson of gratitude that Chazal already taught us generations ago.

This concept of having gratitude is definitional to who we are as Jews. We are called “Yehudim,” named after Yaakov’s son Yehuda, who was so named by Leah because “now I want to thank Hashem.” As in Judaism we believe that a person’s name is an expression of their essence, the fact that we are called “Yehudim” means that an essential part of our nature is to be thankful. One of our major responsibilities as parents, therefore, is to raise our children with this overarching sense of hoda’ah.

As a community we are generally good in this regard. Our communities and schools educate us from a young age to say “thank you” when someone does something for us. I still remember a song from second grade about saying thank you—the chorus ending with “everything that is done for us, even thanking the driver on the bus.” We make sure that our kids are polite.

However, that’s only half the job. We must ensure that the “thank you” our kids say is an expression of true gratitude—and not simply a half-hearted phrase said by rote. By teaching our kids to say the words we ensure that the correct words are said to the person who helped them. Yet, as we demonstrated above, the real goal of hoda’ah is the effect it has on the person expressing the thanks. Our ultimate goal is not simply to raise children who are polite—but to cultivate within them a recognition of the good that they receive, a deep sense of gratitude for that good, and an awareness of the importance of expressing thanks. Not because it is polite, but because by doing so they tap into their essence as Jews and will ultimately become happier people as well.

This idea has important religious implications as well. When we encourage our children to recognize the things done for them daily, we also open a path for them to develop a deeper connection to Hashem. As Hashem is the source of most of the goodness within their lives, the more sensitive they are to all that they receive, the greater the awareness they’ll have of all that Hashem does for them, as well—hopefully leading to a more meaningful connection to Him.

How can we cultivate this awareness within our children? As always, the best way is by living this middah ourselves and modeling it for our children. The more we work on recognizing the gifts we receive from God and others in our daily lives, the more our children will learn from us and hopefully develop the same sensitivities as well—becoming happier people along the way.

Shabbat shalom!


Rav Yossi Goldin is the menahel tichon at Yeshivas Pe’er HaTorah, rebbe at Midreshet Tehilla, and placement adviser/internship coordinator for the YU/RIETS Kollel. He lives with his family in Shaalvim and can be reached at [email protected].

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