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Torah Commentary
Pinchas (July 30, 2016)

Giving Humble Thanks: A Lesson in Hakarat Hatov

Prince H. Davis, Administrative Assistant

In Parashat Pinchas, Midian’s leaders devise a treacherous strategy against the Israelites: They send their daughters to entice the Jews to commit harlotry and idol worship. It is noteworthy that God does not instruct Moses to lead the attack on the Moabites, who also are involved in this plot. Unlike with the women of Midian, the Moabites do not beguile the Israelites. Rather, it is the people themselves who take the initiative and partake of the sacrifices to their gods. As the Torah says: “The people partook of them and worshiped that god.”

In addition to their sensual attractiveness, the Moabites and Midianites bring plenty of wine and offer it to their companions to weaken their moral resistance. This triggers a divine retribution that kills 24,000 Jews. The Midianites’ and Moabites’ cruel fraudulence thus is countered with the strict prohibition of ever accepting the conversion of either group.

It is interesting to note that in the war against Midian, Moses doesn’t lead the people into battle, as he has in past wars. Instead, he sends Pinchas. The Ohr HaChaim suggests that Moses is reluctant to lead the war against Midian himself because it was Yitro, the chief of a Midianite clan, who saved Moses and raised him in his household. He even gave Moses his daughter Tziporah as a wife.

Although Moses receives a direct command from God to wage war, how can he participate in the destruction of the very people who in the past showed him such kindness? Even King Saul, when it comes time to fight against the Amalekites, sends a message to the Kenites (the descendants of Yitro) saying, “Come, withdraw at once from among the Amalekites, that I may not destroy you along with them; for you showed kindness to all the Israelites when they left Egypt.”

I always think this is a convenient way for Moses to remove his own guilt and regret by sending someone else to do the dirty work. Where’s the gratitude? Then, I remember that it is Aaron, not Moses, who initiates the plague of turning the Nile into blood. Why? It is because the Nile had “saved” Moses from the killing of the firstborn. How could he betray this natural ally of his? After all, the meaning of Moses’ name hints to his salvation by water. (Aaron also initiates the plague of lice when he strikes the ground with his staff. The Midrash says that it is the ground that hides the Egyptian that Moses kills while coming to the defense a fellow Jew.)

We read in I Kings 17:17-24 how the prophet Elijah felt so indebted to a widow that gave him food and shelter that he resurrected her young son. If this was his obligation for receiving bread, then how much so is the obligation for the rest of us to show gratitude when assisted spiritually or physically that saves us from terrible harm and danger?

If we do not honor or recognize our benefactor with gratitude, then we are ungrateful. Let us now ponder for a moment how thankful we must be to God who grants us countless goodness and constantly shows us outstanding kindness. We must do all we can to love and help others, thereby fulfilling His will. This is the true essence of Hakarat Hatov, receiving the good. Shabbat Shalom!

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