19 Elul 5781

August 27, 2021

When you enter the land and get settled, this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8) tells us, the most important thing to do, your first priority, is to bring an offering of gratitude.  “God brought us to this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”(26:9) Then follows a long series of blessings, and an even longer series of curses, that will devolve on the person who does not maintain their part of the covenant.

You will be cursed, we read “Because you did not serve Adonai your God happily and with fullness of heart for all the abundance.” (28:47) We learn two priority values- gratitude and appreciation.  The very word for a Jew, Yehudi, comes from the root, l’hodot, to give thanks.  It is the very foundation of our spiritual path.  To be a Jew is to be a grateful person.  We enter Shabbat with Pslam 92.  What are the first words of this psalm? “Tov l’hodot– it is GOOD to give thanks.”  What a beautiful way to end our week and begin our day of restoration and reflection.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes that, “Living with gratitude elevates your entire life.  You become a more spiritual person.  You become a more joyful person.  You become a kinder and more compassionate person.  You become a calmer and more peaceful person.  You become a person who lives in greater harmony with others.”  There is a LOT to be gained by simply saying thank you!.

As the year winds down, we devote time to reflecting on what went wrong, our failings, the relationships in need of repair. There are many more curses than blessing in Ki Tavo, reflecting on our natural human inclination towards negativity.   Ki Tavo also invites us to think about the positive, about the blessings in our lives. The Hebrew word for gratitude is “hakarat ha-tov,” recognizing the good.  A reminder to pay attention to the good that we are blessed with in our lives.  Don’t ignore it, don’t take it for granted!

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin reminds us that our gratitude should extend to institutions that have supported us – a university, perhaps?  A job?  A synagogue?  Even if someone does only part of what we request, we should still be grateful to them.  You will recall that when Moses and Aaron brought the first plague in Egypt, turning the water of the Nile into blood, it was Aaron who raised his staff.  That water had sheltered Moses as a baby, and he still felt a sense of appreciation to it for saving his life, even if he ultimately had to flee Egypt.  If someone or something has played a positive role in our lives, the appropriate response is to say thank you.

As hard as our lives can be, as challenging as this past year and a half has been, it’s easy to lose focus on all of the abundance.  Of course we need to do teshuvah for the hurt that we have caused and the wrong we have done.  But it’s also a moment to make sure that we are guided by the words of Ki Tavo, to give thanks for what is bountiful in our lives, and to fill ourselves with joy and fullness of heart.

Isn’t it curious that we wish each other a Shana Tovah, a GOOD year?  On December 31st we say, “Happy new year.”  During this month of Elul, we say, “Shanah tovah u’metuka– a good year, a sweet year.”  Gratitude is the foundation of happiness.  We may not wish each other “Happy New Year” on Rosh HaShanah, but that prayer is surely in our hearts.  The more we cultivate gratitude, the happier we will be.  We hope for happiness, of course, and, we honor, as well, the connection between goodness, appreciation,  and happiness.

If we can learn to be modest in our expectations and generous in our gratitude, we have a much better chance of a year that is filled with goodness AND happiness!