Thanks When Thanks Are Due

A midrash on the 10 plagues reminds us to recognize any good that has been done for us.

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Throwing Stones in Wells

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 (Babylonian Talmud, 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 B.C.E. 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 notbe where we are or who we are; to conceal them serves only to aggrandize ourown 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.

Embracing Zionism

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 to1915, in addition to his Gymnasium classes, he spent fifteen hours a week studying Hebrew.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.