Gratitude Must Be Learned – September 12, 2014

What a lovely day we had today! In the coolness of the early morning, we had the first intimations of Autumn. After the hot and humid days of the last week, it felt delightful. The Ravens played well against the Steelers last night, beating them convincingly in front of a national audience, and Baltimore was showcased to the country. We have rarely looked better, with the tall ships in the harbor and the Blue Angels in the sky. To make life even better, the Orioles magic number is now eight! The Susel family is with us tonight, basking in the joy of a family simcha, rejoicing that everyone is healthy enough to share in Abbey’s bat mitzvah celebration. We are grateful for so much. Yet gratitude is a quality that does not come naturally to us. It is a character trait that must be learned, inculcated into children when they are very young. We are naturally self-centered and need to be trained to appreciate what we are given.
Sally and I had taught our children that they could not cash a bar or bat mitzvah check or use a gift until they wrote the thank you note for it. It is amazing that they wrote all their thank you notes within two weeks. Expressing thanks is something they had to learn. It is a lesson that has stayed with them.
Our Torah portion for this week, Ki Tavo, from the Book of Deuteronomy, “portrays God as the gracious giver of gifts. It describes God as giving Israel blessing, rain and crops, cattle and sheep, towns and settlements, sons and daughters, and the power to get wealth. God’s primary gift to the people is the land of Israel itself. Yet the author of Deuteronomy worries that these gifts could easily become snares, that the people will feel entitled to God’s bounty instead of being grateful for it. They will forget that it was God who gave them so much. Earlier in the Torah (Deuteronomy 8:12-18), we read ‘Beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God…and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember, it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth (Shai Held, Torah Commentary, September 10, 2014).”
“Deuteronomy admonishes us against possessing a sense of entitlement. People who have had everything provided for them, who have never had to work to enjoy life’s pleasures, can easily come to believe that they deserve everything they have. Entitlement is a spiritual poison that undermines the very possibility of gratitude. If I have everything coming to me, why should I be grateful? Our text also tells us that those who achieved great success, economic or otherwise, and arrogantly assume that they did it all themselves, have forgotten God’s role in their lives. Their gratitude disappears in the midst of their pride and arrogance (Held, Torah Commentary). ”
Is it wrong to think that we are responsible for our own success? No, it is not. We just have to remember what Rabbi Nissim Gerondi, who lived in fourteenth century Girona, near Barcelona told us. The great physician, astronomer and sage wrote there is nothing religiously problematic about acknowledging the hand we ourselves play in achieving success and prosperity. Some people, he writes, have been endowed with special talents in business, medicine, or intellectual matters. To some extent, these people can claim they have accumulated wealth through their own talents. Yet Rabbi Nissim reminds us that our raw abilities are an endowment from God rather than an achievement. We have to always remember who gave us our gifts and where they came from. As Moses said, “Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you wealth.” We should not forget that even if it is our abilities that have given us wealth, it is God who has given us our abilities (Held, Torah Commentary).”
On a glorious weekend such as this, as we celebrate a young woman’s becoming a bat mitzvah and the two hundredth anniversary of Baltimore’s victory against the British in 1814, we cannot forget that it is God who has blessed us with our talents and endowed us with our gifts. Genuine gratitude to God leads us to share our blessings with others. Deuteronomy reminds us that no matter how much we have, we always must remember to be grateful.
Amen and Shabbat Shalom

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