Sensitivity Even For the Inanimate
Right at the end of this week’s Parasha, we are again confronted with the notion of inanimate and lifeless objects seemingly possessing feelings and emotions.
The Torah enjoins us (Shemot 20:23): “And you shall not ascend with steps upon My altar (the mizbach haolah), so that your nakedness shall not be exposed upon it.” Rashi cites Mechilta that understands this verse as a prohibition against constructing the altar with steps. If the kohanim (priests) walked up broad steps it would be as if they were uncovering their nakedness, and thus, they would be treating the altar disrespectfully. By walking up a ramp in smaller steps, as a ramp would necessitate, less disrespect would be shown to the altar. (It is evident from Rashi that it is the disrespect (bizayon) which is the concern and not the immodesty).
Since when is an inanimate ramp conscious to the manner in which people ascend it?
This is not the first time such a concept is brought to our attention. The majority of the 10 plagues needed a physical act to bring about the plague. With the plague of Blood, the Egyptian waters had to be hit with a staff thereby causing the water to turn to blood. Similarly, to bring about the Frogs that were to emerge from the waters, the waters were to be hit. To bring about the third plague – Lice – the earth was to be hit.
The interesting thing we see from the verses, however, is that Aharon was the one to bring about the first three plagues. It is not Moshe who smites the waters and the earth; rather it is Aharon who does so.
Rashi explains that it was not befitting for Moshe to smite the waters or the Earth. This is because as an infant it was the River Nile that had protected Moshe from the Egyptian butchers and allowed him to be hidden from them. It was the Earth that had allowed Moshe to bury the Egyptian that he had previously killed. For Moshe to smite them would constitute a lack of gratitude, hakarat hatov, to the waters and the Earth; therefore, Aharon was tasked with the job.
Are the waters and the Earth actually conscious to the fact that Aharon struck them and not Moshe?
We’ve all experienced what I call ‘false gratitude’. Sometimes you get a phone call or an email from someone thanking you for a favour you’ve done for them. But then they go on to ask you for another favour. And you realise that the reason they called you is not to express their gratitude but rather to ask for another favour!
That’s not true appreciation. True appreciation is when a person expresses gratitude purely for its sake. They recognise that someone has helped them and they deserve to be thanked and appreciated for their efforts.
Chazal wanted to instil and cultivate within us a true appreciation and sensitivity to others without having ulterior motives.
How does one develop sincere appreciation? When one’s gratitude and empathy extends even to inanimate objects that cannot reciprocate. That’s true greatness. When Moshe is careful not to smite the waters or the earth it is not because they will feel any different whether Moshe smites them or not, rather the benefit is for Moshe to cultivate true appreciation for others. When the Kohen acts respectfully to the altar it is not for the altar’s benefit but for the Kohen to nurture true sensitivity for others.
That is genuine appreciation and sensitivity.