Gratitude in Good Times and Bad

Rabbi Bradley Artson
Rabbi Bradley Artson
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Vice President, American Jewish University

Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson (www.bradartson.com) has long been a passionate advocate for social justice, human dignity, diversity and inclusion. He wrote a book on Jewish teachings on war, peace and nuclear annihilation in the late 80s, became a leading voice advocating for GLBT marriage and ordination in the 90s, and has published and spoken widely on environmental ethics, special needs inclusion, racial and economic justice, cultural and religious dialogue and cooperation, and working for a just and secure peace for Israel and the Middle East. He is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He supervises the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program and mentors Camp Ramah in California in Ojai and Ramah of Northern California in the Bay Area. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining Conservative rabbis for Europe. A frequent contributor for the Huffington Post and for the Times of Israel, and a public figure Facebook page with over 60,000 likes, he is the author of 12 books and over 250 articles, most recently Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit. Married to Elana Artson, they are the proud parents of twins, Jacob and Shira.  Learn more infomation about Rabbi Artson.

posted on January 27, 2007
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading
Maftir Reading

One of the blindnesses of human nature is our recurrent ingratitude and our appalling lack of memory. Saying please always comes more readily than stopping to say thank you. Somehow, acknowledging assistance never seems as urgent after we’ve already gotten the help we wanted in the first place.

We seem capable of recalling our dependence on others only during moments of weakness (which we insist are transitory and brief), but during periods of health, prosperity, or abundance we revert to the mistaken idea that somehow all of that abundance is purely the result of our own intelligence, ingenuity or strength.

What is true for human dependencies is all the more apparent in the realm of the sacred. There may be no atheists in foxholes, but once the victory celebration is seriously under way, its hard to find any God-fearers either.

We all have the need, it seems, to believe in our own invulnerability. And since dependence on others is susceptibility toward those others, we deny it as quickly as we possibly can.

Similarly, in moments of illness, poverty, or terror, we readily pour our hearts out to God. But after the crisis has passed, after the cure has taken hold, how many of us remember the urgent promises we made to God? How many of us live up to the implications of our own deliverance?

Apparently, what is true of today’s people was no less true in ages past. The human heart has not changed, only the means of our own self-deception.

Today’s Torah portion addresses that ingratitude, looking at the example of Pharaoh, as he is confronted by Moses and the insistence that the Israelite slaves go free.

Unwilling to accept the liberation that Moses demands, Pharaoh determines to keep the Jews as his slaves. As a way of educating him beyond his stubbornness, God begins the series of plagues which will culminate with the death of the Egyptian firstborn males.

The first few plagues leave Pharaoh unmoved. But then God sends a rain and hail so powerful that crops are leveled and those upon whom it falls are killed. The Torah recounts that this was “a very heavy hail, such as has never been found in Egypt from the day it was founded until now.”

Terrified by the devastation it produced, Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and admits his guilt before God. He then asks Moses to intercede on his behalf, to persuade God to stop the storms. As soon as he leaves the palace Moses does so, and the rains immediately cease.

And Pharaoh, what of his terror-induced piety? What of his newfound insight?

The Torah relates the sad truth of human nature: “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he became stubborn and reverted to his guilty ways, as did his courtiers.”

There is a little Pharaoh in each of us. As the rabbis of Sh’mot Rabbah observed: “So it always is with the wicked: As long as they are in trouble, they humble themselves. But as soon as the trouble passes, back they return to their perversity.”

Independence is an illusion. Each of us is dependent on countless others: the many who preceded us and who paved the way for us; our parents and grandparents, who nurtured and raised us; our siblings and friends; our teachers and peers; our community and our faith, our nation. Every day, we depend on people we don’t know to provide us with the necessities to live and function in the world.

And beyond our human dependencies remains our total dependence on the Holy Blessing One, Who bestows health, sustenance, and shelter, Who makes the world a habitable place.

In the midst of our busy lives, our dependence on others and on God may not be big news. But can we remember to say thank you after the busy day ends? 

Shabbat Shalom!