Gratitude as a Jewish value
Thoughts on parashat Ki Tavo
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.