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Living with gratitude
What kind of solution is this?
This week’s parasha, Ekev, is part of Moses’s long speech to the Jewish nation before their imminent parting. Moses is about to die, and the people of Israel is about to enter the land of Canaan. The speech is full of guidance and warnings that Moses imparts to the nation as preparation for its entry to the land and its encounter with the nations that inhabit it. One of the main topics in this parasha is wealth and dealing with its accompanying phenomena. The first verses of the parasha describe the blessing the nation is expected to receive:
“And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep and perform them, that the Lord your God will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. And He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your soil, your grain, your wine, and your oil, the offspring of your cattle and the choice of your flocks, in the land which He swore to your forefathers to give you” (Deuteronomy 7:12-13).
Reading further reveals that there is danger inherent in this abundance. The nation could become engrossed in the pleasures of the good life and forget where it came from and why. To prevent this, the Torah does not go on to propose a monastic life or one that avoids life’s pleasures. The solution it offers is different. We are told to remember God in a life of blessing.
The concern about forgetting God is expressed in the following verses: “lest you eat and be sated, and build good houses and dwell therein, and your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold increase, and all that you have increases, and your heart grows haughty, and you forget the Lord your God, Who has brought you out of the land of Egypt... and you will say to yourself, ‘My strength and the might of my hand has accumulated this wealth for me’” (ibid. 8:12-17).
This was not an unfounded or unrealistic concern. It is a well-known human phenomenon. A person whose life is good might quickly forget his obligations to God and to other people. Financial success leads to a sense of security and stability, sometimes on account of our moral or ideological compasses.
So, how does the Torah cope with this potential problem? The solution seems a bit obscure:
“But you must remember the Lord your God, for it is He that gives you strength to make wealth” (ibid. ibid. 18).
What kind of solution is this? If the actual problem is forgetting God, how is it solved by Moses telling us to remember Him? How are we supposed to remind ourselves?
To answer this, we have to go back a few verses and notice that the Torah offers us a practical solution, a permanent reminder that will change our awareness:
“For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land... you will lack nothing in it... And you will eat and be sated, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you” (ibid. ibid. 7-10).
Note the linguistic format connecting the problem and the solution: “lest you eat and be sated... and you forget the Lord” – “and you will eat and be sated, and you shall bless the Lord.” A person can cause himself to live a life with a sense of gratitude for the abundance with which he was blessed, by reciting blessings before and after partaking of food.
One of the moments in which a person is likely to feel self-satisfied and forget God is after a heavy meal. That is when we are called upon to perform an act that will remind us who provided us with all this abundance: to recite Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), to thank God and remember that the blessing of wealth is not to be taken for granted.
Living with a sense of gratitude changes our life experience. Instead of being arrogant and smug, a grateful person looks at reality with humility and modesty and recognizes his true place. Indeed, you succeeded, you invested the effort and worked hard, you profited; but you did not create that strength and ability to do all this by yourself. God gave you those abilities, that wisdom, those skills, and you are called upon to recognize this and be grateful for it.