Parshat Ekev — the mitzvah of gratitude

Parshat Ekev — the mitzvah of gratitude

Parshat Ekev teaches us a transcendent lesson of Jewish living. Long before day-planners, computers, and smartphones, with calendars and apps that remind us constantly of what we are supposed to be doing, the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah enabled Jews to schedule our lives by Jewish time and thereby remind us of what was important in a Jew’s life. The Jewish calendar not only sets aside a weekly Shabbat and an annual calendar of Holy Days, but also a daily structure of worship and blessings.

One of these structural tools is the command to give thanks.

After spending the last few months reading in the Book of Bamidbar, which translates into English as In the Wilderness, about how the Israelites spent the 40 years from the Exodus from Egypt until their now-imminent entrance into the land that God had promised them kvetching about every little inconvenience they experienced, Moses, having been told in the opening chapter of Deuteronomy that he would not be leading the people Israel into the land of Israel, will spend the last month of his life appealing to this new generation of Israelites to be grateful to God for their blessings.

What to me is the beginning of Moses’ farewell sermon to Israel we read this week in chapter 8 verses 10 of Deuteronomy: “V’achalta v’savata et Adonai Elohecha al haaretz asher natan lach” — “When you have eaten and are satiated, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land which He has given you. (Devarim 8:10).”

The rabbis of the Talmud in Berachot 48B derived the command to recite the grace before and after a meal from this passage. The Talmud says that the purpose of these blessings is to make each of us realize that despite our efforts and labors, without God none of us would ever enjoy the gifts of this world. It is a clear statement that gratitude is a central value of Judaism.

There are four core blessings in the birkat hamazon. The first reminds us that God is ultimately responsible for our nourishment. The second draws our attention to the land of Israel and the uniqueness of its produce. The third reminds us of our religious yearnings for a religious center, Jerusalem, for the Jewish people. The fourth completes the message by reinforcing that God is good and that we have the opportunity and responsibility to choose to become partners with God in spreading goodness and peace throughout the world.

A short lesson in the Hebrew grammar of this passage can underscore this point. “U’vayrachta,” which is a derivative of the Hebrew word “baruch,” usually is translated into English as “and you will bless.” Yet in the modern Jewish translations of Torah, the word in our verse under discussion is rendered as the command “give thanks,” based upon the understanding that every time we say “Baruch Ata Adonai” we are not saying to God “You are blessed.” Rather, we are saying, thank you to God for the blessings that God bestows upon us. When any of us say “baruch ata Adonai” as the opening of a bracha, are we not expressing gratitude to God that we are alive; and that very fact is a blessing in and of itself?

The message of the birkat hamazon is to be grateful for what we have and to commit ourselves to be God’s agents in the world. When we live each day being just a little more decent, with just one additional sand-like grain of integrity, we should be both grateful and satisfied. Each of us should learn to say: “Today, I lived the best I could and I am grateful that I did. Tomorrow is another opportunity to add more grains of sand by expressing gratitude to God in both word and deed.”

In the spirit of the rabbinic saying “shivim panim l’Torah,” which literally means that there are 70 faces to Torah but in actuality teaches us that every time we study a text of Torah, we should seek to understand it anew in the context of our lives, I suggest today that in the aftermath, though not necessarily the end, of the covid-19 pandemic we should read: “V’achalta and you shall eat; V’savata and you shall be satisfied; uvayrachta and you shall give thanks” as a command applicable to more than eating.

I think that the author of Deuteronomy is calling upon all of us to be grateful for our lot in life. In the full text of the birkat hamazon, we express our gratitude to the one who prepared the meal, and the ones with whom we eat as well as to God. So, too, should we not daily give thanks to God for the gift of life and give thanks to our family friends and community for their roles in enhancing the quality of our lives?

In his Torah commentary, “Finding Recovery and Yourself in Torah” (Jewish Lights, 2016), my brother, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, comments upon another verse from this week’s parsha that I see as connected to the issue of gratitude and the challenges we all face in the 21st century.

Commenting upon Deuteronomy 10:16, where we are told to “circumcise the foreskin of your (plural) hearts so that you will no longer be stiff necked,” Mark suggests that this refers to the need to remove the thin membrane that too often separates the individual from a clear connection with others and with God. He compares it to a cataract that obscures our physical sight and suggests that this membrane clouds our spiritual, emotional and intellectual vision.

Mark then asks the reader to consider three questions.

1. How do you continually remove the cloudiness from your thinking and feeling so that you are truly living according to your soul?

2. How do you give dignity to all human beings and help everyone have a voice in our societal discussions?

3. When and how do each of us and all of us surrender to God’s will?

In these weeks between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah, as we seek to lift ourselves, our community, and our world from the depths of desolation, destruction, and despair that are symbolized by Tisha B’Av, the day of our communal mourning, to the heights of envisioning a better world that we can give birth to, with God as our midwife, on Rosh Hashanah, which is also called Yom Harat Olam, the world was born. Mitzvot generally command us to do what we ought to do, and warn us against what we should not do, rather than dealing with what we do instinctively.

Moses’ instructions to Israel here in parshat Ekev to give thanks to God by offering a blessing for the most basic of human needs, sustenance, is also, for me, a call to me that to truly express my gratitude to God for the multiplicity of blessings that I have received over the course of my life and continue to receive daily, I must accept the responsibility of being God’s voice and God’s hand in the world. The Torah, through all the stories of our biblical heroes, teaches us that no one can be perfect, not even Moses. Judaism, with our daily confessional prayers recited in the silent Amida, directs each of us to acknowledge our imperfections, but yet teaches us that doing our best is good enough.

When we come to the end of Deuteronomy after our month of Tishri’s holy days we will rewind our Torah scrolls and return to the stories of Genesis, where we will be taught again that every human being is both created in the Image of God and is the: dust of the earth.

If God can accept us with our imperfections, we too have to be satisfied with where we are and what we are doing right now, while we try to do better each day. The challenge in life is not to be the best, but both to do our best and to strive every day to be just a little better.

As Rabbi Tarfon taught in one of my favorite passages from Pirke Avot: “ time is short and the task (of redeeming the world) is great…. Though it is not your obligation to complete the task. (of redemption) neither are you free to avoid doing your share.”

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