Last week there was finally some good news. Certain economic indicators were telling the financial experts that the economy might be starting to turn around (or that it was at least finally hitting bottom). Now, I am hardly an economics expert. Therefore, I will spare you my completely uneducated guess as to what will happen to our national economy. Fortunately for us, our Torah portion this week, Ekev, addresses both good and bad economic circumstances.
Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25) is part of a series of sermons, or addresses, that Moses gives the people before they enter the promised land. He reminds the people of the past: slavery in Egypt, God’s many miracles performed on their behalf, and all the times they rebelled against God while wandering in the desert. He recalls the many mistakes the Israelites made while in the desert ““ their many shortcomings. But Moses does not just dwell on the past, he also speaks of the future and his worries about what will happen after the people enter the Land of Israel.
We read, “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep God’s commandments or not.” Clearly, the 40 years in the desert were not easy, and were never intended by God to be easy for our ancestors. Eating manna for 40 years was not meant to be like gourmet dining – nor was trudging through the hot desert shlepping all that stuff much like a resort vacation. Moses reminds us that hard times tested our ancestors. Difficult times, however we define them, test us all. There are many hardships each of us may face in our lives: loss of job, illness, to name just a few. And there are just as many ways we can choose to respond to those hardships.
What is interesting is that while Moses reminds the people of their hardships and the choices they made during those difficult times, he seems even more concerned about something else. He actually seems more concerned about what will happen to the people, not during hard times, but during the prosperous ones. Moses tells our ancestors that when they settle in the Land of Israel they will have everything they need – plenty of good food, water to drink, and precious metals to mine. But then Moses warns, “When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God….”
In numerous different ways and in very strong terms, Moses warns the people that it is only too easy to forget about God and become arrogant during the good times. In good times, it is easy for us to give ourselves credit for all that we have and forget God’s role in it all.
Rabbi Moshe Alshich (a kabbalist and Torah commentator of 16th-century Safed) argues that God actually tests us in two very different ways. He says that while we are tested through hardships, we are also tested through “an abundance of material riches.” Alshich argues that either of these circumstances tests a person’s character. He further argues that the person who enjoys abundant wealth actually goes through the more difficult test because it is so easy to fall under the spell of what Moses warns against: the arrogance of believing that you deserve, not God, full credit for all you have, and the sense of entitlement and even idolatry (materialism) that follows.
It is probably safe to say that most of us, given the choice between hardship and wealth, would be willing to accept the risks involved and take the more difficult test ““ abundant wealth. After all, Moses does not say that we have to succumb to arrogance. In fact, he offers us the antidote to falling prey to it. That antidote, simply, is gratitude. The Torah tells us, “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land….where you will lack nothing….When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you.”
Give thanks. It seems so simple. Of course, in our busy, demanding lives we often forget to say “thank you” to the people we live with, the people we practically trip over every day at work….never mind God. So Judaism has a built-in, everyday, practical mechanism for helping us remember. That is the system of saying b’rachot (blessings) before eating, holidays, doing various mitzvot, etc., as well as saying Birkat Hamazon after we eat. The mitzvah of saying Birkat Hamazon comes directly from the verse I just mentioned. When we eat, should we not feel grateful? Shouldn’t we thank the cook? Then how much more so should we thank the Creator, without whom there would be nothing to cook? Saying b’rachot every day helps us to see the beauty and miracles that God has created. It helps us feel a sense of gratitude every day in the course of our normal routine. It also helps us realize what we do have – even when we are struggling.
During these uncertain and ever-changing times, some of us are experiencing hardship, some of us are still experiencing prosperity, and some of us have experienced both. While the economic forecast may be uncertain, what is certain is that each of us has a choice to make ““ a choice that is fully under our control. Namely, how we will respond to whatever circumstances we face ““ the bad and the good. Will we turn to arrogance in times of prosperity, or will we embrace a sense of gratitude to God and stay rooted in our community? Will we see our abundance as a gift from God, and therefore feel an obligation to use it to help others who are struggling? The need for tzedakah is acute right now. Whether we give to a Jewish organization, a food pantry, a social service agency, or to our synagogues, it is imperative that we give what we can. And if we are facing hardship, will we turn away from God and our community? Will we rebel in our anger and frustration, or will we reach out for comfort, support, and help? Parashat Ekev teaches us that what we have or don’t have may not be our choice….but what we do is. How each of us responds to the tests in our lives is in our own hands.