By Mark Gerson
The life of our father Jacob—and with it, the book of Genesis—is coming to an end. On his deathbed, Jacob says perhaps the most beautiful and moving expression of love and gratitude ever spoken, “I had not expected to see [even] your face, and behold, God has shown me your children too.”
Joseph, we are told in Genesis 48:12, “removed them [his sons] from his knees and he prostrated himself with his face toward the ground.”
As the Jerusalem Rabbi Benji Levy notes, this would be an entirely explicable expression of parental fealty—a classic example of honoring one’s father—until one considers what we just learned about Jacob: He was blind! Jacob would not have known if Joseph were prostrating himself, standing, or doing jumping jacks. Joseph could honor his father with his words, but not with his body.
Why, then, does he prostrate himself?
Because the act of honoring a parent—or doing any mitzvah (“good deed”)—is not only for the recipient. Doing a good deed reflects and improves the character of the doer. Joseph does not prostrate himself to send a message of respect to his father. He does so because that is just how he acts in the presence of his father, and because treating his father with this respect refines him.
In the beginning of Exodus, God is ready to start the plagues. As a prelude to the first plague, God instructs Moses to tell Aaron to use his staff to get the Nile to change its water to blood. This raises two questions. First, why would God want a person to do the act that causes the plague? As God, he could have made the water turn to blood unaided. As Joseph did with prostrating himself before his father, God is teaching us that the purpose of an action is not only to accomplish its objective. God wants the Nile to turn to blood, but he is also showing us he wants to operate in the world with a human partner.
Why, then, does God tell Moses to tell Aaron to strike the river? Moses had a staff and could have easily struck the river himself. The Rabbis explain: The Nile River had saved the life of the baby Moses by delivering him safely, in the basket, to Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses, therefore, owed the river gratitude—so God would never ask him to strike it.
How can a person owe an inanimate object gratitude or anything like it? The river, of course, could neither think nor feel and so could not have taken offense if Moses struck it. That, the Rabbis state, is not the point. Moses owed the river gratitude, whether or not it could have appreciated or known about it. By having Aaron strike the river, Moses was inculcating himself into the discipline and the habit of gratitude that would define his character and condition him to express gratitude to people.
Every Friday night, we Jews exercise the most joyous aspect of our faith as we welcome Shabbat and get ready to enjoy Shabbat dinner. We bless God over the wine and the challah (the bread). The challah is always dressed with a beautiful covering. Why do we cover the challah? Because the wine is blessed first, and we do not want to embarrass the challah. Can challah be embarrassed? Of course not. But if we are conditioned to respect the challah this way, we will begin the Sabbath by reminding ourselves to always be very careful to avoid embarrassing anyone.
Each of these three examples is very different from the others. Yet they all illustrate the same Jewish truth: Every action we take changes us. This makes intuitive sense. When we look back upon a period of our lives—perhaps a birthday, an anniversary, a school reunion—we acknowledge how much we have changed. And if we pause for a moment, we would realize something that is both obvious and important. All that change didn’t happen in the moment before we considered it. Like a child’s growing or an adult’s aging, the process happens continuously.
Consequently, the answer to the question, “When did this change happen?” is the same as the answers to the questions: “When do I grow?” and “When did I look older than I did before?” The difference is that we can take ownership and control over the first question—and Joseph, Moses, and the Jewish parent who blesses the challah show us how.
We can take ownership of our non-physical changes by acknowledging that they happen at every moment. Every writing we read, every video we watch, every conversation we have, every person we meet, every reaction we have—they all change us. Of course, some change us more than others. A conversation with a spouse about how one can be a better parent or communicator is likely to change us more than a conversation with a grocery clerk about whether or not (to quote a Saturday Night Live bit from my youth) the snack pack counts as one item or six in qualifying for the express lane. But they all change us.
Upon acknowledging that the answer to the question, “When did I change?” is “continuously” or “always,” we realize something else as well. If every encounter changes us—and we can usually control a significant part of each encounter—then we can change ourselves in accordance with who we want to be.
Joseph decided he wanted to be respectful and religious. So, he prostrated himself before his blind father. God decided Moses, whom God had determined would lead the Jewish people out of slavery and toward freedom, should be grateful. So, God told Moses to tell Aaron to strike the Nile. And some wise Jews a long time ago wanted us to be sensitive to publicly embarrassing anyone, so they devised the otherwise strange custom of dressing the challah.
Who does each of us want to be? What qualities do we want to cultivate and resist? Once we make those decisions, each day will present literally hundreds of opportunities for us to change ourselves accordingly.
Mark Gerson, a devoted Jew, is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who (along with his wife, Rabbi Erica Gerson) is perhaps the world’s largest individual supporter of Christian medical missions. He is the co-founder of African Mission Healthcare (AMH) and the author of a forthcoming book on the Haggadah: The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life.