They don’t call them “the magic words” for nothing.
Continuing our theme from last week, Rashi (Sh’mos 7:19) writes that Moshe Rabbeinu could not be the one to set off the plagues of Blood and Frogs by striking the Nile, because he owed a debt of gratitude to the river for protecting him as a helpless baby. Similarly, Rashi (ibid. 8:12) comments that Moshe could not summon the Lice by banging his staff on the Egyptian soil out of a sense of hakaras ha’tov to the ground, which had hidden the Egyptian he killed many years earlier. For these reasons, Aharon was chosen to carry out these makos.
What does it mean to show appreciation to inanimate objects? Would the water or the earth really have felt insulted had Moshe forgotten to leave them a thank-you note?
Rav Eliyahu E. Dessler zt”l (Michtav MeiEliyahu, vol. 3, pp. 98-101) explained that it is a mistake to think that expressing gratitude is for the sole benefit of the recipient of the gesture. If that were the case, then – yes – there would be no reason to show appreciation to inanimate objects, which do not crave any recognition. Instead, a key element of demonstrating thanks is the mere demonstration itself: the fact that one is making an effort to recognize that he or she is not self-sufficient and does benefit from the help of others. Jewish gratitude is less about allowing others to feel appreciated for their acts of kindness, and more about a process of introspection and humility. This becomes most evident when we examine the Hebrew term “hakaras ha’tov,” which translates to an internal “recognition of the good,” rather than providing external confirmation and reassurance to another. In other words, hakaras ha’tov is a midah bein adam l’atzmo (a trait of personal character), rather than a chesed bein adam la’chaveiro (an act of kindness toward someone else).
Now we can understand why Moshe could not be allowed to strike the water or land to which he owed his life. It wasn’t the inanimate objects who would have been offended; it was Moshe’s internal sense of morality that would have taken a hit. Moshe knew that by constantly remembering all of the goodness he had received in his life, he would remain humble and appreciative in general. It didn’t matter whether others needed to receive it; Moshe needed to express it!
While expressing hakaras ha’tov to our microwaves or cell phones (“Thanks, Siri!”) might seem strange, the truth is that we have a much more basic way to exercise this midah. We begin every morning with Modeh Ani, thanking Hashem for giving us another day of life. This is followed by over 100 blessings throughout the day, conveying appreciation for everything He gives us: from our eyesight to our shoes. Much like the river and the earth, Hashem does not need our gratitude, nor does He derive any satisfaction from the gesture. Articulating hakaras ha’tov is our way of humbly recognizing our own neediness and acknowledging all of Hashem’s kindness.
It’s not that Hashem needs to hear it; we need to say it!