Life as an Ongoing Thank-You Note

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The ability to cultivate gratitude and the attentive mindfulness we must bring to the task can remind us of the blessings we encounter every day.

Parashat Eikev
Parashat Eikev continues Moses’ speeches to the Israelites that make up the bulk of Devarim — the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses offers them the story of how they have gotten to this moment — and the formula they must use to move forward into this new phase of their journey.
He tells them:
“Your God Adonai is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing … When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to your God Adonai for the good land given to you” (Deuteronomy 8:7-10).
God is giving the people this land both on the merit of their ancestors and on the expectation that they uphold their end of the covenant: They must follow the mitzvot. And, not only must the people keep the mitzvot — the symbol of their relationship with God — in deed, but also in their hearts and in their consciousness.
After they have met with prosperity, Moses reminds them, they should “beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget your God Adonai — who freed you from the land of Egypt.” (8:14) In other words, even in the midst of prosperity, the people (and us, their descendants) should never mistake our fortunes as the result of our own merit or character as “winners.” Moses reminds the people that it is God who makes for all that we have and achieve.
In the Torah text, it is easy to get mired in talking about God as a personality — a character even — in this narrative. The text invites us to see and describe God in terms of a being with whom we could interact personally. A figure who takes a personal (and often personified) interest in the doings of our story and its characters.
This way of talking about God resonated in the lives of our ancestors. But, as post-modern people of spirit, many of us find this characterization of God challenging to claim as our own. We aim to look beyond the narrative limits of the text. We yearn to find a Godself we can recognize in the world in which we live. We need this text desperately, but we need it to speak to us. Today. As ourselves.
Eikev reminds us to remember God’s role in our fortune and God’s relationship with us through the covenant, so that we might not erroneously ascribe our fortunes to our own power, might and character. And the sentiment is not amiss: The centrality of ego is a recurrent cultural theme in 21st-century America. In contrast, Jewish teaching is marked by humility.
And yet, a friend who attends AA told me recently that he cannot stomach the recovery community’s phrase “let go and let God.” Despite the concept’s power for so many, my friend could not set aside his incredulity at a God who interacts with each of us in this personal way.
So where does God show up? And, where does she show up (for us) in our parashah this week?
“When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to your God Adonai for the good land given to you” (8:10).
This phrase is familiar to those who recite birkat hamazon — the blessing after meals. It quotes this section of our parashah, and it stands as a reminder of the role of gratitude in a spiritually meaningful life.
The ability to cultivate gratitude and the attentive mindfulness we must bring to the task can remind us of the blessings we encounter every day. In fact, the experience of gratitude is directed more strongly from our “attitude of gratitude” than from any objectively measurable assessment of our personal situations.
We are all familiar with the pitfalls of a consumer, material culture: The quest to attain belongings, status and other outer measures of success fails to satisfy. That is, they cannot satisfy if we do not pause in the act of acquisition long enough to let the feeling of satedness and the awareness of our blessings become part of our living days.
In Chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma reminds us, “Who is rich? One satisfied with their lot.” Indeed, even amidst riches, their blessings elude us if we do not clasp the spiritual treasure that is gratitude. Even in limited circumstances or in times of loss and bereavement, we find comfort and wellness in gratitude for the blessings we can acknowledge.
This is where God shows up. This is the narrative moment in which God lives for us. He shows up in our moments of authentic gratitude.
Rabbi Shoshanah Tornberg is the director of education and lifelong learning at Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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