Time to be grateful [Ki Tavo]

Time to be grateful

When I was a little boy, my family had an allotment garden. All my relatives visited it from time to time, but it was clear to everybody that it was the kingdom of my great-aunt Irena, my grandma’s older sister. Aunt Irenka spent hours and hours on end there tending to the plants. She occasionally asked other family members to help her when some of the tasks went beyond her physical ability. However, most of the time Auntie Irenka (as we used to call her) worked on our allotment garden alone. She came back home from there exhausted but she did not seem to pay any attention to it. Instead, Auntie often spoke about the future when we would be able to eat our own, home-grown fruit and vegetables. Similarly,  Auntie Irenka was never discouraged when draught or excessive rains limited the amount of her harvest. Conversely, she  was always proud of her produce, even when it was scarce. Moreover, whenever she brought a first batch of her crops home, she showed extreme gratitude for them, always saying:

Thank God for these amazing (plums/pears/carrots/parsnips), aren’t they delicious?! And so healthy! We will make amazing salads and preserves out of them.

I remembered my great aunt’s words when I read this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo. In its opening verses  we find the following instruction:

When you have entered the land the Eternal your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first fruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Eternal your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Eternal your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Eternal your God that I have come to the land the Eternal swore to our ancestors to give us.” …. and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, Eternal, have given me.” Place the basket before the Eternal your God and bow down before him. Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Eternal your God has given to you and your household. (Deuteronomy 26:1-3,11.)

This paragraph describes the so called mitzvat bikurim, the commandment to bring first fruits to the Tabernacle (later replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem). These first fruits were supposed to be given to the Eternal in an elaborate ceremony which started with a confirmation of this given individual’s arrival to the Land of Israel. Subsequently, the Israelites were expected to recall all the hardships that they endured as slaves in and refugees from Egypt. Finally, they were expected to place their offered fruits in the place designated as holy (literally, before God’s presence) and bow, thus ending the first fruits ceremony. However, the Israelites were expected not only to complete this ritual, but also to rejoice in all the good things that the Eternal bestowed upon them.

We, modern Progressive Jews, do not believe in sacrifices. What’s more, even if we did, we don’t have a Temple where we could offer our first fruits. Nevertheless, our daily efforts still bear fruit – sometimes larger, sometimes smaller, but fruit nonetheless. This week’s Torah portion got me thinking about our relationship with the fruit of our labour. Are we proud of them, viewing them as a consequence of our hard-work and God-given talents? Or do we play down their importance, telling ourselves that our achievements are nothing special, a ‘fluke’, something that everyone could do?

I hope that you see most of your accomplishments in the former way. Still, I suspect there are days in your life when you do not feel like you have made much progress crossing off items on your to-do list. On such days, we can feel overwhelmed and dissatisfied with ourselves. If that sounds familiar, I encourage you to view the tasks you managed to complete through the prism of the first fruits ritual. Initially, you could consider the things  you have achieved so far and tell yourselves: I have already made a lot of progress. This way, you will mirror the behaviour of the biblical Israelites who acknowledged the first fruit of their labour in the Promised Land even though their conquest of Canaan was far from over. Later, you can look at all the obstacles that you had to overcome in order to get to your current position, just like the Israelites recalled their journey through the wilderness. This step could help you cherish your resilience and appreciate the skills and resources you put to use to find your way to where you are now. Finally, just like the Israelites,  who rejoiced and expressed gratitude for their first fruits, you could try to show thankfulness to the Eternal by appreciating your results and giving yourself credit for them.

Feeling gratitude for what we have achieved in life feels like a daunting task, particularly to us, modern Westerners. These days, we are socialized to believe that one should always strive to achieve more. It motivates us  to push ourselves but leaves us unable to enjoy the first fruits of our efforts. Whenever I feel that I need to escape from this never-ending treadmill of anxious thinking about the next task, I think about my Aunt Irenka. Born and socialized in a small village in Kujawy, she always acknowledged that it wasn’t easy for her to move to a big city and get educated. Moreover, she knew that it is important to patiently wait for the results of your work and she took pride in even the smallest of them. I am not quite sure whether she was familiar with the first fruits ceremony described in our parasha, but she definitely embodied its spirit, full of gratitude and appreciation for life.

This Elul, our month of reflection, I encourage you to think about your achievements in the year 5778 and show gratitude for all you were able to accomplish. When you do so, you might feel like the ancient Israelites and my aunt Irenka, who were able to pause, appreciate the first fruits (or vegetables) and feel Divine Providence even in mundane tasks. I hope that such ‘gratitude breaks’ will help you prepare for the High Holydays and will become a part of your routine in the New Year 5779.

Shabbat Shalom!

Mati Kirschenbaum

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