“Gratitude is an attitude,” some wise man surely must have said at some time. The Bible, in this week’s Parshah, demonstrates just how far Jewish tradition teaches us to be grateful and to remember our benefactors.

Seven of the ten plagues occur in this week’s reading. Moses, messenger of G‑d, is busy bringing down these terrifying plagues on Pharaoh’s Egypt. Yet, interestingly, he calls upon his brother Aaron to be the agent for the first three plagues—blood, frogs and lice. Why did Moses not do these himself, as he would do the others?

The Midrash, quoted by Rashi, teaches us that this is because it was through the agency of the waters of the Nile River that Moses was saved as an infant when he was put in the basket. It would have been insensitive and inappropriate for him to strike those very waters in order to bring on plagues. Seeing as the blood and the frogs both came directly from the water, it was Aaron who stuck the water rather than Moses. Similarly with the third plague, that of lice. The lice came from out of the ground, and the earth, too, had helped Moses to cover the body of the Egyptian taskmaster whom he had killed defending a Jewish slave. Therefore, it would have been wrong for Moses to strike the earth, and so for this plague, too, Aaron was the agent.

What a monumental lesson to each of us on the importance of gratitude. First: Do water and earth have feelings? Would they know the difference if they were struck, and who was doing the striking? How much more so should we be considerate of human beings when they have done us a kindness. How scrupulous we ought to be not to offend people, especially those who have come to our assistance.

Second: Moses was 80 years old at the time of the plagues. These incidents with the water and earth occurred when he was a mere infant and when he was a very young man. And yet, all these years later he is still sensitive not to strike the objects that had helped him. He did not say, as so many have after him, “So what have you done for me lately?”

There are a number of theories as to why human beings seem to have this psychological need to tarnish the image of their past benefactors. Perhaps it is because we are inherently uncomfortable with the notion of being indebted to anyone. It cramps our style and diminishes our independence. So, if we find fault with those who have helped us previously, we absolve ourselves of any moral indebtedness. Now we’re even. I don’t owe you anything anymore.

The story is told of the Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, 1762–1839) that he once did an enormous favor for someone. Later, the fellow asked him, “Rabbi, what can I ever do to repay you for your kindness?” The Chatam Sofer replied, “One day, when you get upset and angry with me, please remember what I have done for you today—and, rather than pelting me with big rocks, please throw small stones instead.” Sad, but oh so true. In a similar vein, I remember hearing my own grandfather say of someone, “Why does he hate me so much? I never did him any favors!”

This little story of Moses, which is only an aside to the main body of the biblical narrative, teaches us to remember the kindnesses that are bestowed upon us—when they happen, and forever. If one who has been good to us in the past does wrong and needs chastising, let someone else volunteer for the job. He may need rebuking, but you’re not the one to do it.

Once again, the Torah is teaching us not only religious ritual, but how to be better people—more sensitive, and yes, eternally grateful human beings.