Small Acts of Kindness

Va'era By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 4, 2003 / 5763 | Torah Commentary

A careful reading of the Torah narrative would quickly persuade us that not all of the ten plagues are unleashed by Moses. The midrash, in fact, attributes only three to Moses – those of hail, locusts and darkness. The first three plagues – those of blood, frogs and vermin – are attributed to Aaron, while still three others – insects, pestilence and the death of the first born – come directly from God. Finally, one plague – that of boils – is triggered by all three of them jointly.

The midrash does not provide an overall explanation for the pattern. From a modern perspective, I would observe that the multiple authorship of the plagues may be intended to understate the magical prowess of Moses. In its portrait of the man, the Torah consistently brings out his failings. Though larger than life, Moses never looms before us as superhuman. Moreover at the end, the Torah conceals his place of burial. Moses is to be venerated, not worshipped. His persona ought not to become a cultic focal point.

What interests me, however, is the highly suggestive partial explanation offered by the midrash for Aaron’s causing the first three plagues. The homily turns on the important rabbinic principle of acknowledging a favor (hakarat ha-tov). As the beneficiary of an act of kindness, we are bound in a lifelong relationship with its progenitor, whether animate or inanimate. There is too little good in the world for us to indulge in ingratitude. Our life should become a text for others.

In this spirit, the midrash has God address Moses. “‘The waters that preserved you when you were thrown into them and the dust which protected you on the day that you killed the Egyptian [that is, covered his body] should not be smitten by you.’ That is why they were smitten by Aaron” [Torah Shlemah, vol. 10, p. 44-45]. Put differently, it would have been an act of gross ingratitude for Moses to smite elements of nature to which he owed his very life. And so the devastation (including that of the frogs which came from the Nile) was wrought by Aaron.

The same ethical principle prompted the midrash to account for another episode in Moses’s life. Prior to his death, he is instructed by God to eradicate the Midianites who had needlessly joined Balak, King of Moab, to induce the gentile prophet Balaam to curse the people of Israel (Numbers 22:2-8). Again an acute reading gives rise to ethical insight. Though the command is directed to Moses (31:2), he sends others to execute it (31:6). According to the midrash, his personal indebtedness to the land of Midian, which gave him refuge, a family and employment when he fled Egypt, forced him to recuse himself from leading the assault. A piquant and popular proverb closes the homily with a punch: “Never throw a stone into a well from which you have drunk” (Bemidbar Rabba 22:4). Let not the pain of a recent injustice obliterate the memory of an earlier gesture of compassion.

It is standard rabbinic fare to ground principles as well as practices in Scripture. Thus the Talmud finds proof for the admonition not to muddy the waters which once nourished you in the torahitic legislation to admit an Edomite or Egyptian into the people of Israel in the third generation. Unlike the Ammonites and Moabites, who refused to extend food and water to the Israelites in the wilderness and are therefore eternally excluded, the Edomites and Egyptians are eligible for admission: the former because they are kinsmen and the latter because they once took in our ancestors (Deuteronomy 23:8-9). In short, the principle of acknowledging a favor is embedded in the Torah itself (BT, Bava Kama 92b).

And such communal acknowledgment is the basis for a prayer for the government, which has been a fixture of synagogue services on Shabbat morning after the Torah reading for centuries. The Talmud draws an analogy between fish and humans. It is only the authority of the government which prevents humans from devouring each other like fish in the sea. Hence we are advised to pray for its welfare, for no matter how arbitrary or discriminatory a government might be, as long as it maintains a semblance of law and order it is preferable to mob rule (BT Avodah Zarah 4a). As the Kingdom of Judah unraveled at the beginning of the sixth century BCE and the Babylonians deported its leading citizens, this is precisely the farsighted counsel that the prophet Jeremiah issued: “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper (Jeremiah 29:7).

But I wish to end closer to home. Each of us in our life’s journey is beholden to innumerable acts of kindness. Without them, we would not be where we are or who we are; to conceal them serves only to aggrandize our own accomplishments. I can think of no finer role model in this regard than Gershom Scholem, the renowned scholar of Jewish mysticism who died in 1980.

In his autobiography From Berlin to Jerusalem, which covers the first third of his life, Scholem recounts his introduction to the world of rabbinic Judaism. The context is his rebellion as an adolescent against the utterly diluted Judaism of his parents’ home by embracing Zionism. His Zionism, though, ran far deeper than strident protests of estrangement or romantic nature hikes on German mountaintops. It provided the impetus to study Hebrew and to immerse himself in the sacred sources of Judaism. From 1913 to 1915, in addition to his Gymnasium classes, he spent fifteen hours a week studying Hebrew.

But it is to his first teacher of Talmud, Rabbi Dr. Yitzhak Bleichrode, to whom Scholem pays touching tribute. In those days, Berlin was a wasteland for the study of Talmud, a subject restricted to rabbinical students in one of its two seminaries. Bleichrode, a gentle, modest and gifted teacher, taught Scholem and his few likeminded friends free of charge, for no other reason than love of Torah. Though Orthodox, he neither judged nor countered their unobservant lifestyle or free-thinking spirit. The Torah itself would do that.

Scholem attributed an indebtedness to Bleichrode beyond words and credited him with the one authentically religious experience of his life. It occurred one Sunday morning in the spring of 1913, when Scholem learned with him his first page of Talmud and later that day, the Rashi on the first verses of the Torah. That initial meeting with the tradition beyond the Bible implanted in Scholem a profound and enduring fascination with Judaism.

Many years later Bleichrode, who made aliyah at age 65, quietly attended Scholem’s class on the Zohar at the Hebrew University. When his students marveled at Scholem’s uncharacteristic indulgence, he told them cryptically that “what is mine and yours actually belongs to him” (Hebrew edition p. 51).

Would that we could all fulfill the commandment of acknowledging the good so self-effacingly!

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-era are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld