Ki Tavo

Gratitude as a Jewish value

Thoughts on parashat Ki Tavo

Menachem Mirski

What are the Jewish values? Typically, when this question is raised, the following values are mentioned: devotion to live in community (Israel), education (Torah), governance of life by law (halacha), truthfulness and trustworthiness (emunah), justice and righteousness (tzedek), kindness and taking care of others (chesed), respect and dignity (kavod) and responsibility (acharayut). They all have their social and their religious dimension, and traditionally they were all put under one umbrella: belief in God. They can also be put under another umbrella: fixing up the world (tikkun haolam).  These values are at the core of our Jewish religious system. They remain forever unchangeable despite changes in our rituals, customs, despite halachic changes and even some changes in Jewish ethics. These core values are the felt commitments of lived religion; they remain the same even though their ritual and practical expressions may change.

However, these core values are not completely immune to erosion: a change in religious practices may cause their erosion and disintegration. This danger never disappears (that’s one of the reasons there are those who object to any changes in our religion and tradition) and it was specifically acute in the early stages of our religion’s development, when judaism was particularly vulnerable to a damaging influence from surrounding cultures which did not share many of the values of our religion. That’s why we read in our Torah portion for this week:

If you do not obey the LORD your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect: Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock. Cursed shall you be in your comings and cursed shall you be in your goings. The LORD will let loose against you calamity, panic, and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake, so that you shall soon be utterly wiped out because of your evildoing in forsaking Me. The LORD will make pestilence cling to you, until He has put an end to you in the land that you are entering to possess. The LORD will strike you with consumption, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew; they shall hound you until you perish […] The LORD will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, which will swoop down like the eagle—a nation whose language you do not understand, a ruthless nation, that will show the old no regard and the young no mercy. It shall devour the offspring of your cattle and the produce of your soil, until you have been wiped out, leaving you nothing of new grain, wine, or oil, of the calving of your herds and the lambing of your flocks, until it has brought you to ruin. It shall shut you up in all your towns throughout your land until every mighty, towering wall in which you trust has come down. And when you are shut up in all

your towns throughout your land that the LORD your God has assigned to you, you shall eat your own issue, the flesh of your sons and daughters that the LORD your God has assigned to you, because of the desperate straits to which your enemy shall reduce you. (Deuteronomy 28:15-22,49-53)

These are only 13 verses out of the entire 54-verse passage that tells about what will happen to the Israelites when they disobey the Eternal. Disobeying means questioning the Divine laws and wisdom and it basically means the same today.

This disobedience starts with mere ingratitude towards the Holy One, which is diagnosed at the beginning of our Torah portion, where it stresses the necessity of the annual, mass and solemn sacrifice of the firstfruits (Deuteronomy 26:1-11). Rabbi Yitzhak Breuer eloquently summed up various interpretations of this ritual:

The bikkurim brought every year are an unparalleled demonstration of a happy and blessed nation living on its land in quiet and security. It is a demonstration of the sovereignty of the Holy One over the nation, which each year accepts anew, with bended knee and with bowed head, the land from its God. In that tremendous national joy, the nation offers up its confession, a national confession stemming from national joy.

The Torah is deeply aware of one of the essential features of human nature: when people become well-off and have a leisurely life, they develop a tendency to become conceited and to rebel against the existing norms and rules of life, as we see in the following verses:

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—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. (Deuteronomy 8:12-14)

It all ends by abandoning the true values and in idol worship – today this most often means worshiping money, power, position and technology – namely the products of human hands and minds: the things that should never be worshiped by man. The worst case scenario is worship of man himself – cult of personality. All this, at the end of the day, leads us to decadence and all that it brings: depression, destruction of the social fabric and the decay of social and cultural life.

The remedy lies in the constant and true practice of gratitude towards the Eternal, for everything that is given to us, including every moment of our life. Therefore, it can be said that gratitude to the Eternal is the foundation on which all our Jewish values arise.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

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