Gratitude and Liberation

Rabbi Shai Held

Parashat Shemot

Everyone thinks they know the story of the Exodus: No longer able to bear their oppression and enslavement, the Israelites cry out to God, who remembers the covenant and redeems them. The story of the slaves being freed is the foundational story of the Jewish people: Twice a day Jewish liturgy recounts the experience of slavery and liberation, and once a year, at Passover, Jews ritually re-enact the journey from bondage to freedom. When God is revealed at Mount Sinai, it is not as Creator of heaven and earth but as the “God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6). And when the Torah demands that the Israelites take care not to oppress the stranger, they are repeatedly reminded why: “For you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

And yet in some Jewish sources, the story takes on a seemingly very different hue. A narrative of subjugation and deliverance becomes, of all things, a tale of gratitude and ingratitude.1

The book of Exodus begins on an ominous note: The text tells us that “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (1:8). This is a surprising turn of events—according to the book of Genesis, after all, Joseph was enormously powerful, second in power only to Pharaoh himself. He effectively controls the Egyptian economy and amasses tremendous wealth for Pharaoh (Genesis 47:13-27). How is it possible that the new Pharaoh does not even know him?

But Joseph is not the only biblical character whom Pharaoh does not know. A few chapters later, when Moses first conveys God’s demand to let Israel go, Pharaoh responds contemptuously: “Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2).2 

Commenting on Pharaoh’s purported ignorance of Joseph, a midrash asks, “But how can this be, for to this very day, the Egyptians know the kindness Joseph did for them?!”3 Rather, the midrash answers, “Pharaoh knew Joseph but did not pay him adequate attention, and was ungrateful to him. And in the end, he was ungrateful to God as well, as it says, ‘I do not know the Lord.’ From this we learn,” the midrash adds, “that ingratitude is closely related to rejection of God” (Midrash HaGadol to Exodus 1:8).4 When the Torah tells us that Pharaoh did not “know” Joseph, in other words, it means to suggest not that Pharaoh was unacquainted with Joseph, but rather that he did not acknowledge Joseph and the great debt that Egypt as a whole, and Pharaoh in particular, owed him.

Pharaoh is ungrateful both to Joseph and to God. The midrash insists that these two types of ingratitude are of a piece, and even that one leads almost inevitably to the other; gratitude and ingratitude are ways of being in the world— the former has the potential to pervade and enrich every corner of our lives, and the latter has the power to metastasize and poison every aspect of our being. Pharaoh’s ingratitude permeates his entire world, and it drives his life in endlessly destructive ways.

What does it mean to be ungrateful? At bottom, ingratitude reflects an inability—or perhaps an unwillingness—to acknowledge our dependence on, and our indebtedness to, anything or anyone beyond ourselves. To be ungrateful is to be unable—or again, perhaps just unwilling—to acknowledge other people, past or present, who have made our lives possible; and, traditional Jewish texts add, to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge God as the source of life. Hence Pharaoh refuses—and maybe at a certain point his refusal is so entrenched that it becomes an inability—to acknowledge his debt, either to Joseph or to God.

The midrash goes on to imagine God exhorting the Jewish people: “Be careful lest you be ungrateful to Me, for one who is ungrateful cannot accept the Kingdom of Heaven.” At first glance, God’s statement may seem like a threat, but it is really a description: If we are ungrateful, if we don’t acknowledge the reality of just how much has been given to us rather than made or achieved by us, we will actually be incapable of worshipping anything but ourselves. It is not surprising, then, that the prophet Ezekiel imagines Pharaoh insolently declaring, “The Nile is mine; I made it for myself” (Ezekiel 29:3). Pharaoh’s statement is the most dramatic denial possible of the fact that he is dependent, that as powerful as he is, he is still a creature, created by and dependent on God. Another midrash imagines Pharaoh disdainfully announcing: “I have no need of God; I created myself” (Midrash HaGadol to Exodus 5:2). I myself am God, Pharaoh implies, and I therefore have no obligations to anything or anyone besides myself.

The midrashic Pharaoh is an extreme, even caricatured case. But you don’t need to be Pharaoh to struggle with gratitude—you just need to be human. Very few of us are either brazen or delusional enough to claim that we created ourselves, or that we made the world that sustains us. And yet in smaller, less dramatic ways, many of us resist and struggle against admitting just how dependent and vulnerable we really are—against, admitting, in other words, just how much we owe. Pharaoh embodies that problem at its ugliest and most frightening extreme.

Moses provides a striking contrast to Pharaoh.5 At the beginning of Exodus, God hears the cries of the Israelite slaves, and decides to send Moses to free his downtrodden people. Moses soon encounters God at the burning bush, and God summons him: “Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt” (3:10). Moses hesitates, God insists, and then… something quite strange happens. Moses has just been assigned a world-historical task. Yet amazingly, he does not immediately head for Egypt to fulfill his mission. Instead, Moses returns to his father-in-law Jethro in Midian and asks for permission: “Let me go back to my kinsmen in Egypt and see how they are faring” (4:18). What is Moses doing? Pharaoh is mercilessly brutalizing the Israelites—according to one midrash, he is slaughtering and bathing in the blood of three hundred Jewish infants each day (Exodus Rabbah 1:34); according to another, when an Israelite slave fails to produce an adequate number of bricks, the Egyptians take his youngest son and use him as brick and mortar (Sefer HaYashar to Exodus, 69:6-8). Moses has been given the opportunity to free his brothers and sisters, and yet—seemingly inexcusably—he dallies. 

A midrash imagines an answer to this question. Upon hearing God’s demand that he set out for Egypt, Moses responds, “Master of the world, I can’t, because Jethro welcomed me and opened his home to me, and I have become like a son to him. One who opens his home to you—you owe your life to him… Jethro welcomed me and treated me with respect. Should I now leave without his permission?!” (Midrash Tanhuma, Shemot, 16).

The end of Moses’ divine mission mirrors its beginning. According to the book of Numbers, God instructs Moses to fulfill one more task before he dies, to “avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites” (Numbers 31:2). But instead of going himself, Moses appoints others: he chooses twelve thousand soldiers for the battle and sends them out under the leadership of his grand-nephew Phineas (31:6). A Rabbinic commentary expresses surprise: “God says, ‘You go,’ and he sends others in his place?!” It then explains: “[Moses did this because] he grew up in Midian, and reasoned, ‘It is not right that I afflict them, since they were good to me.’ The parable says, ‘Do not throw stones into a well from which you have drunk’” (Midrash Tanhuma, Matot, 3).

Moses displays gratitude when God assigns him his first task, and he does so again when God assigns him his last. Moses’ life, the midrash implies, is animated by gratitude from beginning to end.

Quietly, subtly, Rabbinic tradition thus casts the story of Exodus in a dramatic new light. The clash between Moses and Pharaoh is not just a struggle between the Israelite slaves and their Egyptian lords, nor is it just a battle between God and Pharaoh. The clash between Moses and Pharaoh is also a war between gratitude and ingratitude. When Moses refuses to go to Egypt before he secures Jethro’s permission, he is not just fulfilling a personal obligation—though he is surely also doing that. He is tacitly saying: It would be inappropriate for me to lead the Israelites out of this bastion of ingratitude by first behaving like an ingrate myself. I am going to model a radically different way of living; I am going to lead like the anti-Pharaoh, and model what a life of gratitude could look like. This may be precisely why God chooses Moses to lead the Israelites in the first place: In the end, only a person who truly understands and embodies the quality of gratitude can lead the slaves out of Egypt, an abyss of cruelty fueled by pervasive ingratitude. God’s hope, then, is not just that the Israelites will leave the political oppressions of Egypt, but also that they will leave behind the culture that makes such oppression possible—and for that, they need a leader who embodies a life oriented by gratitude.6

By this point, the reader may be tempted to protest that she wants her Exodus back! How and why has the Jewish people’s grand narrative of slavery and liberation—and, for that matter, Western civilization’s paradigmatic story of slavery and liberation—been re-imagined as a story about something ostensibly less potent and less urgent? What is the relationship between oppression and freedom, on the one hand, and gratitude and ingratitude, on the other? And why has Rabbinic tradition seemingly made a decision to conflate them?

First, recall what I have already suggested: Pharaoh’s ingratitude and his inhumanity share the same root, namely his refusal to see other people and to acknowledge the ways that he and his people are dependent upon them. One of the tragic—and potentially horrific—consequences of ingratitude is the sense that nothing outside of me makes a claim on me. Since ingratitude is the insistence that “I don’t owe anybody anything,” it can blind me to the reality and dignity of other people. Being ungrateful can thus be both a symptom and a cause of inhumanity, and the two have the potential to feed off of one another in a dangerous downward spiral.

Remember the midrash’s observation that “one who is ungrateful cannot accept the Kingdom of Heaven.” If the Israelites are to accept the Kingdom of Heaven—that is, if they are to serve the real God rather than be enslaved by shameless pretenders—then the leader who guides them must himself embody the character trait that most makes such acceptance possible.7 No gratitude, no relationship to God.

It is no coincidence that Moses and Pharaoh represent gratitude and its antithesis. The chasm between them is fundamental to the story and part of what gives it life. Unbridled self-assertion and a refusal to acknowledge indebtedness to anyone or anything else are what underlie Pharaoh’s rule, and his way of being in the world.8 Acknowledgment of others and a willingness to face his own indebtedness, on the other hand, are what underlie Moses’ leadership, and his way of being in the world. The liberation of the Israelites from Egypt is a liberation from a mode of seeing the world and living in it at least as much as it is an escape from concrete political circumstances. Moses returning to Jethro before he heads for Egypt, then, is integral to the story of Israel’s liberation. They are about to embark on a journey towards a culture of gratitude and reciprocity, and Moses leads the way.

Leaving a place of ingratitude is leaving a place of enslavement in another crucial sense as well. It is not just that those who are devoid of gratitude may feel license to dehumanize others, but also that ingratitude itself constitutes a kind of prison. If we refuse to be grateful, we close ourselves off from the possibility of real relationship and connection to others. To be ungrateful is to be stuck inside ourselves, to be shackled in a prison of our own making; it is like living in a form of solitary confinement. Conversely, to be grateful is a powerful manifestation of freedom—the freedom to live a life infused by mutuality and reciprocity. In allowing ourselves to be grateful, we free ourselves from the prison of our own self-enclosure and become available to meet and be met by others. 

1 On the centrality and meaning of gratitude in Jewish theology and spirituality, cf. what I have written in “No Leftovers: The Meaning of the Thanksgiving Offering,” CJLI Parashat Tzav 5774, available here; “Against Entitlement: Why Blessings Can Be Dangerous,” CJLI Parashat Ki Tavo 5774, available here; and “Can We Be Grateful and Disappointed at the Same Time? Or: What Leah Learned,” CJLI Parashat Va-Yeitzei 5774, available here.

2 Oddly for this midrash—and unmentioned by it—is the fact that according to Exodus 2:23, a different Pharaoh is spoken of in each case (1:8 and 5:2). The midrash seems to assume that it can equate all those who hold the title of Pharaoh (at least in the book of Exodus). I am grateful to Professor Jon Levenson for our exchange on this point.

I have argued elsewhere that Joseph’s treatment of the Egyptians is in fact quite complicated—he saves them, but he also enslaves them. Accordingly, their attitude towards him might understandably have been more complicated than simple gratitude. Cf. what I have written in “Saving and Enslaving: The Complexity of Joseph,” CJLI Parashat Va-Yigash 5775, available here. Nevertheless, the midrash works from the assumption that immense (and unambivalent) gratitude should have been the Egyptian posture towards Joseph.

4 Cf. also Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer, parashah 7, p. 137. Why is this midrash so confident that even contemporary Egyptians know about Joseph? Midrash HaGadol originates in Islamic countries, and all Quran-reading Muslims know of Joseph thanks to the twelfth Sura. I am grateful to Professor Burton Visotzky for this insight.

5 For the initial idea of juxtaposing Moses and Pharaoh as paragons of gratitude and ingratitude, I am indebted to Moshe Yehiel Tsuriel, Otzrot Ha-Musar (Jerusalem, 2002), pp. 498-501.

For an interpretation along similar lines, cf. R. David Dov Levanon, “Hakarat Ha-Tov—Sod Ge’ulat Mitzrayim” (Hebrew), accessed at (accessed 12/29/14).

7 It is painfully ironic, in light of this, that the Israelites’ entire sojourn in the wilderness is marked by such stubborn ingratitude, both to Moses and to God. The people seem to have learned the wrong lesson from Pharaoh, making Moses’ counter-model all the more urgent and necessary. I am grateful to Jeremy Tabick for this insight.

8 Moreover, as my colleague R. Jason Rubenstein points out, Moses’ deep sense of gratitude is also a crucial “part of what enables him to escape the trap of becoming a new Pharaoh to the liberated Israelites.” Personal correspondence, 1/24/12.