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Rejoicing In Another’s Success

It is a high-level human function to truly rejoice at the success and good fortune of another person. It goes against basic human emotions. Each person wants the success. Every person feels deserving of the blessings of life, so it isn’t surprising that we don’t often rejoice at another’s success the way we do at our own. The concept of an “evil eye” springs from this psychology. Another’s success may bring out feelings of jealousy or even worse, actual destructive behavior.

In this week’s פרשה, the Torah relates that Moshe told his father-in-law Yitro all that transpired to the Jewish people: their years of hardship and cruel treatment by the Egyptians, how God intervened to save them and about the daily manna that fell from the sky to sustain them in the desert. He rejoiced wholeheartedly after hearing Moshe’s account. The Torah points out that Moshe’s retelling of the events was so vivid that it caused “goosebumps” to appear on Yitro’s skin. In response to what he heard, Yitro offered a blessing to Hashem followed by a sacrifice and festive meal. (Shemot 18:9-12)

The implication of these details recorded by the Torah is that until Yitro, no one blessed God. In fact, our Sages remark that this sequence of celebratory steps by Yitro created an inadvertent degradation of the Children of Israel. They hadn’t stopped to offer a blessing or sacrifice of thanks to Hashem. They did not rejoice in a festive meal after the miracle at the Sea of Reeds which resulted in the permanent destruction their captors and tormentors. The miracle of the manna in the desert, mentioned in the last week’s Torah reading, did not evoke a response of thankfulness by the nation then or for that matter, any subsequent time during the 40 years of the nation living in the desert.

While it is true the nation did say שירה, praise to God, after the splitting of the sea and their salvation from the Egyptians, saying a blessing they did not. How do we understand, then, the reaction of Yitro? What caused him to respond as he did in contrast to the almost “flat line” response of our ancestors, the Children of Israel? In order to shed some light on this issue, we must ask what is the difference between שירה, a song of praise to God and a ברכה?

Harav Yisroel Chait, my mentor and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Bnai Torah, made a clear distinction between שירה and ברכה. A song of praise to God seems to be a much greater response than the simple words “ ברוך ה’.” What is the categorical difference between שירה and ברכה? We are familiar with the expression, “to sing his praises.” At a testimonial dinner or awards ceremony, for example, we extol the particular attributes exhibited by the awardee. We praise his or her accomplishments. In a song of praise to God, recognition is given to His uniquely superior might and greatness. שירה is pure praise to Hashem.

ברכה, on the other hand, is a form of giving thanks. It is crafted in the language of praise but it is essentially a statement of thanks. In שירה we recognize the fantastic nature of the event but one can easily feel the intervention was deserved. Giving thanks implies we didn’t deserve the act of kindness bestowed on us. At the same time, we realize the positive impact this event has on our lives. This attitude of thankfulness should not end with the simple verbalization of thanks. Rather it should change how we relate to the source of goodness, be it another person or in this case to God. The concept of thankfulness is totally different from the idea of giving praise.

Yitro lived his life on a very high level. This high level wasn’t the result of simply overcoming the petty emotions that most of us operate on. It was not based on his personal experience or his own subjective success. His life was centered on relating to God through understanding the philosophical principles by which God relates to man. Therefore Yitro’s rejoicing stemmed from a different source, his knowledge of God.

Being in line with the will of God was all that concerned Yitro. He was not personally invested in the outcome. His rejoicing, even in another’s success, stemmed from this objective relationship to God. In this case, his rejoicing arose from an appreciation that God of the universe would go to such an extent to bring His master plan, creating the nation of Israel, and bringing it into existence. The realization and actualization of God’s plan had nothing directly to do with him.

 

Yitro’s rejoicing was simply a manifestation of his new insight into God’s relationship with man. Perhaps this level of joy and gratitude is experienced by each of us on a smaller scale when for example we understand a principle of science. A broad smile may come over our face, now for the first time comprehending the workings of a physical law of the universe.

But Yitro’s expression of joy related to the realm of experience that most of us would consider being personal, which he himself did not partake in. By recording this event, the Torah is teaching us that only when a person relates to the universal framework of God, which includes as well the realm of God’s relationship to man, can true rejoicing and thankfulness be expressed. This motivation is a very high level of human function indeed. Would that we all operated and lived in that realm!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan