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Benefits received

Va’era — Exodus 6:2-9:31

A piece of advice often given to job-seekers is that one should never speak negatively about a former employer. It may be true that senior management was clueless, that your boss was an idiot, and that you were inexplicably passed over for a promotion that was given to a less competent coworker, but you must not say it. When the interviewer asks why you left your previous job, say nothing more than “Things didn’t work out the way I hoped” or, even better, “I was seeking a new challenge.” If you vent your displeasure with your last job, your prospective employer will undoubtedly think that in a few months you will be saying similar things about him, and nobody wants to hire a malcontent.

This is good, practical advice, but it goes beyond that. In our parsha this week, Moses and Aaron come before Pharaoh, bearing God’s message, “Let My people go that they may serve Me,” and demonstrating the sign God had given them. When Pharaoh’s magicians duplicate this sign, turning their own rods into serpents, Pharaoh dismisses Moses and Aaron. Now the plagues begin — blood, frogs, lice, and more. And as we read the text, we see that while Moses is God’s chosen messenger, he isn’t the sole author of the plagues. It is Aaron who is charged with initiating the first three plagues.

Perhaps this is because the Torah wants to emphasize that the plagues are God’s doing — Moses is no superhuman wonder-worker. But the midrash uses this text to teach an important moral lesson.

Before the first plague, God says to Moses: “Say to Aaron: Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt…that they may turn to blood.” Similarly, God instructs Moses to tell Aaron to stretch out his rod over the waters to initiate the plague of frogs and to strike the dust of the earth with his rod to bring on the lice.

In Midrash Shemot Rabbah we learn: “Rabbi Tanhum taught: Why were the waters not struck by Moses himself? Because the Holy One said to Moses: It is not proper that the waters that protected you when you were cast into the river should now be struck by you. As you live, they shall be struck by none other than Aaron…. It is not proper that the dust that protected you when you killed the Egyptian [who was beating a Hebrew slave and whom Moses buried in the sand] should be struck by you. Therefore, these three plagues [blood, frogs, and lice] were brought about by means of Aaron.”

And if this applies to water and sand, how much more do we owe gratitude to people who have treated us kindly or to institutions from which we have benefited?

According to Pirkei Avot (6:3), “One who learns from his colleague one chapter, or one halacha, or one verse, or one expression, or even one letter is obligated to show him respect.” Even if one ultimately far surpasses his early teachers in knowledge and wisdom or comes to disagree with them, the obligation to show gratitude and respect from what one gained remains.

And what about that former employer? Well, no matter how flawed the company was and no matter how much you disliked your job, it still provided you with a regular paycheck that allowed you to keep a roof over your head, to put food on the table, and probably quite a bit more. And if we have learned nothing else in this economy, we have surely learned that this is not something to take for granted. So when you speak about that employer, along with your criticism, remember to express gratitude for the benefits you received. As the Talmud puts it (Bava Kamma 92b), “Never throw dirt into a well from which you have drunk.”

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