Devarim – Chapter 26:
1: When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, 2: You shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket, and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish God’s name…10: Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.” You shall leave it before the Lord your God and bow low before the Lord your God. 11: And you shall rejoice, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, in all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household.
This week’s Parashah of Kee Tavo opens with one of those rare examples of proscribed prayer embedded in the text of our Torah. The words are poignant and uplifting. They remind us that gratitude for the blessings we enjoy is a built-in feature of the Biblical consciousness and should similarly be at the forefront of our minds. We need to constantly look backwards, recall where we come from and what we have endured, and then celebrate the Shefa Brachot, the abundant blessings, which we can easily discern if we have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to feel.
As I was reviewing the Torah Portion in preparation for our chanting of this section of the lectionary this Shabbat, I was struck by a Pasuk that made me think twice about the notion of how Hakarat HaTov, the recognition of the manifold goodnesses that we are so fortunate to experience, should be viewed.
(Devarim 28) 21: The Lord will make pestilence cling to you, until God has put an end to you in the land that you are entering to possess.
This disquieting verse, which appears in the midst of a series of horrific curses that will befall our people if we reject the Sinaitic Covenant, emphasizes the idea that the land was not “given to us”, but rather is in the continual state of “being given”. The Biblical text lends itself to be read either as “Natan”, given to us by God, or as “Noten”, is in the process of being given to us. Thus, the good land which we are promised as our inheritance, is not a one-time gift, but rather one that we receive incrementally and conditionally. Understood in this light, our Torah is reminding us that in order to be worthy of the blessings bestowed upon our ancestors, we like them must strive to live in ways that are commendable and meritorious. We must never feel as if we have “arrived”, but rather that we are “on the road” to our desired state of being.
In 2013, our teacher of blessed memory, Rabbi David Hartman, in his masterful essay Auschwitz or Sinai? wrote:
“It is important to remember that the Jewish people did not go from the suffering conditions of Egypt directly into the land. We first went to Sinai, made a covenant with God, and pledged absolute allegiance to the commandments. We spent years in the desert casting off the mantle of the suffering slave. After we overcame the humiliating memory of slavery and persecution and understood that we were called to bear witness to God’s kingdom in history, only then did we enter the land. The memory of suffering in Egypt was absorbed by the conventional normative demands of Sinai. We were taught not to focus on suffering outside of its normative and moral implications. Because of Sinai, Jewish suffering did not create self-pity but moral sensitivity: “And you shall love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.
We would be wise to note that Hakarat Hatov, recognition of the good we receive, is best accomplished when we keep in mind that goodness is not a given. It demands commitment, work, and dedication. It requires that we commit – in every era and in every age, in fact in every moment of every day – to do our utmost to walk in the ways of compassion, generosity, and Godliness.
And if we are successful in this quest, we will be blessed to truly rejoice, together with the Levite and the stranger in our midst, in all the bounty that the Lord our God has promised to bestow upon us and our households in perpetuity. Amen!