Tag Archives: Ekev

Gratitude in response to complacency and despair

7 Aug


In our household at the end of a Shabbat meal our family usually sings outloud Birkat HaMazon, the Grace after meals. Our 6-year old daughter has taken it upon herself to lead Shir Haamalot, the opening Psalm (126) in the prayer. If someone else dares to start singing before her, she has a fit because she wants to start. This shows the power of ritual to give us a framework towards an ethical imperative, in this case, expressing gratitude. Does this ritual guarantee our children always express gratitude at the appropriate times? No. Sometimes they need gentle reminders; however, ritual helps.


The Jewish practice of reciting grace after meals is rooted in a verse in this morning’s Torah portion. In fact, this same verse is the centerpiece of the liturgical text of Birkat HaMazon The verse reads:

וְאָֽכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ אֶת־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ עַל־הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ

When you have eaten and you are satisfied, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which he has given you (Deut. 8:10).


The Torah goes on to explain two verses later, “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, וְרָם לְבָבֶךָ וְשָֽׁכַחְתָּ אֶת־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הַמּוֹצִֽיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִֽים

“[B]eware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God who freed you from the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (14). The Sages later enacted the practice that we recite blessings before we partake of food since everything belongs to God, and we seek permission from the owner, as it were, before making use of it. However the Sages also remind us that the grace after meals is Biblically mandated. The Torah itself in its own explanation acknowledges that in moments of satisfaction, it is easy to forget the ultimate source of all goodness. Therefore, when we finish eating, before we run to do something else, our tradition bids us to say Birkat HaMazon.


The Torah reminds us that gratitude helps us guard against complacency and indifference to the world around us when we are blessed with plenty. Last week, I discussed the two recent cases of horrific violence  in Israel: a Haredi Jew stabbed six people at the Jerusalem gay pride parade, one of whom died; and one or more members of an extremist Jewish terror cell firebombed a Palestinian home, killing an 18-month-old boy. One has to wonder how the criminals who carried out these blasphemous acts could be so blinded by hate that they failed to imbibe the basic value of gratitude for the blessings of living in a free Jewish state.


Israel and the Jewish community must engage in deep contemplation over these acts of violence to ensure that we do not tolerate a culture of hatred and incitement that led to these acts.  Even in this challenging time gratitude is essential. Gratitude helps us avoid total despair when we are down and things are not going our way. The name of our people, Yehudim, grew out of a moment of despair. Leah the matriarch had endured many years of being in the shadow of her sister Rachel, whom Jacob loved. The names of her first three sons, Reuven, Shimon and Levi, reflect her great anguish. Yet when her fourth son is born she says Ha-pa’am odeh et hashem, “This time I give thanks to God.” Al ken kar’ah sh’mo Yehudah (Genesis 29:35). Therefore she named him Judah.” When Leah names Judah, it is the first time in the Torah that anyone thanks God with the verb lehodot, to thank, related to todah. It is Yehudah, Judah, who goes on to become a leader among his brothers. It is his name that lives on in our people today. In this spirit, we should be grateful that the Jewish community across the board in Israel and around the world has been so outspoken against acts of violence committed in the name of Judaism.


My own angst about this particular moment in Jewish history was assuaged to some extent when I read a brilliant poem by Chanie Gorkin, an 11th grader at Beth Rivkah High School in Crown Heights. The poem is titled “Worst Day Ever?” and was posted on PoetryNation.com. Over the last few weeks, it has spread like wildfire on Facebook and social media because it struck such a chord with so many people.
The poem reads:
Today was the absolute worst day ever

And don’t try to convince me that
There’s something good in every day
Because, when you take a closer look,
This world is a pretty evil place.
Even if
Some goodness does shine through once in a while
Satisfaction and happiness don’t last.
And it’s not true that
It’s all in the mind and heart
True happiness can be attained
Only if one’s surroundings are good
It’s not true that good exists
I’m sure you can agree that
The reality
My attitude
It’s all beyond my control
And you’ll never in a million years hear me say
Today was a very good day

Now read it from bottom to top, the other way,
And see what I really feel about my day.


The wisdom of Chanie Gorkin teaches us that even in the face of trouble, we must seek something positive. In the wake of unthinkable violence carried out in Israel in the name of Judaism, we must continue to be grateful for the free and democratic State of Israel and pray and act whenever we can for its well-being. We must never take this gift for granted. We must continue to give thanks to God for the blessing lehiyot am hofshi be’artzenu of being a free people in our own land and work hard as a people to live up to the responsibility that this gift entails. The Torah teaches us to be grateful to God for the blessings in our lives, both to guard against despair during difficult times and to guard against complacency when things are going well. Let me close with a prayer that each one of us will find within us the strength to give thanks to God for the blessings in our lives, whatever our present situation. May God hear our thanks and grant us the ultimate gift of Shalom, peace and wholeness.



To Walk in God’s Ways

15 Aug

Karen James was 19-years-old when she competed as a swimmer for Canada in the 1972 Munich Olympics. An innocent teenager in a more innocent time than our own day, she was walking back to the Olympic village. Rather than walk all the way around to the main gate, she and a teammate climbed over the chain-link fence near her dormitory. Four decades later, she is now telling her story of bearing witness to one of the most horrific acts of terror the world has ever known, the murder of the 11 Israeli athletes.

I heard Karen James speak last Sunday at the BB & T Center in Sunrise during the opening ceremonies of the JCC Maccabi Games that brought together hundreds of Jewish teens from around the country for athletic competition and Jewish solidarity. Temple Torah’s own Sam Bernstein and Harlan Kagan participated and many of our members volunteered to make the games a success. Karen James, in her address, described that when she climbed the fence, she noticed a group of men hiding behind a bush who climbed the fence shortly after her. She only realized later, after her dorm was on lockdown, that those men were terrorists who were holding the Israelis hostage. After the athletes were murdered and the games continued as if nothing happened, Karen went home. She had worked her whole life to make it to the Olympics, but now she couldn’t wait to get home. Karen is Jewish but grew up secular and for many years did not speak about Munich. In recent years, she has been speaking publicly about her experiences. She said that doing so has brought her closer to her Jewish roots.

Karen James’s message on Sunday night was sobering in that the world does not seem to have gotten much more peaceful in the last 42 years. The world is still pathetically indifferent towards violence and terror and hostile towards Israel in its effort to combat terror. Nearly 200,000 Syrians have been murdered by the Assad regime. The brutality of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has been largely unchecked until America’s action last week to save the Yazidis from genocide. Israel’s recent operation in Gaza to protect its citizens from rockets from above and terror tunnels from below highlighted much of the world’s indifference to terrorism against Jews and their outrage at Israel’s response to defending itself from terrorism. There have been no mass demonstrations demanding the world fight genocide in Syria and Iraq. Yet, throngs have people have gathered in European capitals spouting vicious anti-Semitism that has also reared its ugly head in pockets of America, including Miami. In a world that seems so helplessly out of control, what are we to do? We find some guidance in today’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Ekev, we encounter the theme of reward and punishment that is especially prominent in Deuteronomy. Serve God well, and you’ll receive abundant blessings; fail to serve God, and you will suffer the consequences. In this context, Moses relates to the people: V’atah Yisrael, Mah Adonai Elohecha shoeil mei-imach, And now, Israel, what does God demand of you? Ki im l’yirah et Adonai Elohecha lalechet b’chol d’rachav—Only that you revere the Lord your God, to walk in His paths, to love Him, and to serve God with all your heart and soul.

The Midrash Sifre comments on the phrase lalechet bidrachav, to walk in all His ways. Quoting Exodus, the Midrash says, “These are the ways of the Holy One—“gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon (Ex. 34:6). Just as God is gracious and compassionate, you too must be gracious and compassionate…Just as the Holy One is faithful, you too must be faithful. As the Holy One is loving, you too must be loving.

In the face of helplessness and despair over a brutal, violent world, our sacred teachings remind us that it’s in our power to bring loving kindness into the world. The Talmud notes further “Hakol bidei shamayim hutz mi-yirat shamayim” Everything is in the power of heaven except for the fear of heaven. God can’t control how we feel and think, nor can God control the choices that we make. This is a good thing. Imagine if we were robots and every action was pre-programmed. It would be a boring world. We are free to choose between good and evil, between following God’s ways and rejecting them. We cannot be compelled to be good. The decision whether to love God and to follow the Torah’s teachings is totally under our control.

The Torah empowers us to engage in the world and demands that we not sit idly by. When people are hungry, we have the ability to feed them. When a friend is suffering, we have the ability to reach out and offer support. The tragic death of Robin Williams has awakened our society to the inner suffering of individual with depression and our duty to offer help. When our brothers and sisters in Israel and Jews around the world are under attack, we have the duty to bear witness to the truth, lobby our officials to support America’s democratic ally, Israel, and, if possible, to visit Israel and be there with our people in person.

Karen James told Jewish teenagers this week about when she witnessed first-hand horrific violence in the making. However, embedded in her message was great hope. The Maccabi Games themselves testified that despite all of the challenges in the world, hundreds of Jewish teens can gather proudly as Jews and engage in friendly, sportsmanlike competition. The Maccabi Games remind us that lalechet bidrachav, to walk in God’s ways, means that God expects us to engage in society and affirm life. Through our efforts in this endeavor, let us find the strength to bring about peace and loving kindness into our world.