13 February 2009
19 Shevat 5769
From whom and from where do we and our children learn about character, values and spirituality? Sometimes, we learn from concrete articulations of values in the form of rules, such as a handbook, a constitution, or, in this week’s Torah portion, Aseret HaDibrot (The Ten Commandments/Ten Utterances of God at Mount Sinai). The revelation at Sinai is one of the most dramatic moments in the Torah, and the Ten Commandments constitute the ethical foundations of our tradition. But at the beginning of this week’s parsha is a more subtle lesson about values and spirituality that is an important precursor to the more well-known Sinai experience. This story illustrates how the way we talk and the language we use can reflect and affect the way we think, feel and relate to others.
After Moshe tells his father-in-law about God saving B’nei Yisrael from Pharaoh and the Egyptians, Yitro responds: “Baruch Adonai asher hitzil etchem miyad Mitraim . . . Blessed is God who saved you from the Egyptians, and from Pharaoh . . .” (Exodus 18:10) According to one Talmudic commentary (Tractate Sanhedrin 94a), this reflects poorly on Moshe and the Israelites because they had not used the word “baruch – bless” until Yitro arrived and said, “Baruch Hashem.” Rabbi Baruch haLevi Epstein in his commentary, the Torah Temimah, responds to an unstated question: how can the Talmud suggest that the Israelites had not blessed God after we just read the joyous and effusive Song of the Sea? His answer suggests a subtle but significant nuance about character and spirituality: the Israelites were expressing shevach v’tehillah (song and praise), but this is different from (and implicitly insufficient without) bracha v’hoda’ah (blessing and thanks). According to the Torah Temimah, the shortcoming of the Israelites was their failure to express gratitude, even though they had praised God.
One of the habits of mind and heart that we aim to cultivate in our students is the capacity to feel awe and wonder, to sense the presence of things greater than themselves such as God, nature, history, community. Surely it seems that the shevach v’tehillah of the Song of the Sea illustrates – both in form and content – that the Israelites possessed these habits of mind and heart. Yet what is it about song and praise that seems to fall short of blessing and gratitude? Perhaps the answer offers us a link between spiritual education and values education. The feelings of wonder and joy that the Israelites expressed through their song were important acknowledgements of God’s greatness and power. Awe and inspiration focus our hearts and minds primarily on the magnitude of the other. Gratitude, on the other hand, shifts the focus to the other’s role in my life; to what this magnificent other does for me; to our relationship. One might praise the greatness of the Grand Canyon, for example, but one does not usually thank it. While praise lays the groundwork for blessing and gratitude, it is the giving of thanks – the acknowledgement of the role that the One whom I am thanking plays in my life – that creates the opportunity for ongoing relationship and ultimately for learning from the One to whom I express this gratitude.
Perhaps in order for B’nei Yisrael to receive Torah and to internalize the core values of the Ten Commandments, they first need to be able to say thank you – baruch Hashem. Thank you, God, not only for your miraculous parting of the sea, but also for our relationship – for bringing us out of Egypt, for giving us our freedom, for the birth of our nation, and for being our guide and our teacher on this journey.
There are many values we want to teach our children. Yitro teaches us that we should not overlook the spiritual foundations of character and values, the capacity to bless and thank. So often our language of praise and thanks reflects rote behavioral norms, politeness or social niceties: “Good job!” “You’re so great!” “Say thank you.” Yitro also teaches us about how language truly can reflect a mindset, emotions, and a stance toward the other. We have students in our school who go up to their teachers after every class (yes, every class!) and say thank you. Is this rote? Is this just being polite? Perhaps it is an ethical and spiritual practice that is deeply woven into the fabric of their character and an important foundation of their learning.
May we and our children practice the habits of mind and heart of wonder and gratitude; and, may the words of blessing and thanksgiving that so often come out of our mouths as routine social norms or mumbled rituals shape our character, penetrate our souls, and open us up to sustained relationships and meaningful learnings.
Rabbi Marc Baker