Todah Rabbah. Thank you.
Thank you for joining me in fulfilling the mitzvah of sh’mittah, the sabbatical, by letting me lie fallow for a season – first in 2005, and then again over the summer that is now ending. I pray that the blessings ordained by God for observance of the sabbatical year will come true for us, and that the bounty of this summer will sustain in ways we would never have thought possible.
Gratitude is a good place to begin as I return to the pulpit after a summer in Eretz Yisra’el. I am filled with gratitude to so many people. I am grateful to Ed, Ellen and Tina who cared for the congregation and led it so ably during my absence, and to Linda whose accompaniment brought added beauty to our worship throughout the summer. I am grateful to the entire staff for taking up the slack occasioned by the rabbi’s absence. Even in a quiet summer, there is slack to be taken up, and they did so with grace and ease. I am indebted to the lay leadership for all that they accomplished while we were away. What a thrill to come back to a new, energy-efficient and easy-to-use cooling system! To all of the aforementioned, I am grateful for their zealousness in protecting the integrity of my sabbatical. They know me and care for me better than I care for myself, I think, and so they really endeavored to keep the small stuff out of my inbox and therefore off of my mind for a very special summer. Finally, I send a long-distance note of thanks to Rabbi Weiss, who took a special interest in the congregation while I was away, staying in touch with people who were ill or grieving. To one and to all…thank you.
The notion of gratitude is at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo. The opening verses describe a ceremony performed in the ancient Temple each year near the beginning of the harvest. The text is in your handouts, and Ed will be chanting the Hebrew. I’m going to read the English aloud in any event, because I think it’s worth hearing twice:
When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, 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 His name. You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.”
The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God.
You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 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. And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household.
Even a plain, contextual reading of these verses leaves us with a sense of the gratitude which must have been in the hearts of the simple farmers as they stood before the priests with their offerings. Imagine the scene: the wondrous Temple in Jerusalem, priests decked out in their finery, and the people, having made pilgrimage from the surrounding countryside, bearing baskets of their choicest first fruits. They can practically taste the delicious fruits – and they will soon enough, in a celebratory meal shared with the Levites and with the poor. But first, they express their gratitude to God, not only for the food, but for everything that God has done for them and for their ancestors, all the way back to the age of the patriarchs. They bow low to the ground, nearly kissing the very earth that has yielded such a bounty. In that moment, I imagine, there is in their hearts a closeness to God – a closeness sadly lost on us, so far removed from the soil that brings forth our food.
For the Sages who pored over Torah with a special sort of attentiveness, the ceremony takes on evening more significance. Our Tradition (GenR 1:4) preserves a teaching of Rabbi Hunah, who remembered it in the name of Rabbi Matanah. For them, the first fruits call to mind not only the harvest, not only the planting that preceded it, not only the settling of the land and the establishment of the people…but the very act of creation. B’reishit bara elohim, usually translated as “in the beginning God created..” becomes, in their playful and prayerful reading, “for the sake of reishit God created…” And what is this reishit, the very first word of the Torah? It is the offering of the farmer in our portion, which is called reishit bikurei admatecha, the “first fruit of the soil.”
Gratitude, then, is about remembering where you come from – as far back as your mind can take you – and who got you to where you are.
Rabbi Ya’akov Neiman, a twentieth century teacher who guided thousands of students in the paths of mussar, taught along these lines. He said that there are two aspects to the gratitude we feel. One is easier to come by than the other. On the one hand there is the gratitude we feel at the fact that there is a universe at all. The universe, in all of its glory and grandeur, is beyond the capacity of human beings to duplicate. We can feel awe at the sun, moon and stars, the mountains and valleys, the rivers and the seas, and recognize in them God’s handiwork: “The heavens declare the glory of God,” the Psalmist sings.
But there is another type of gratitude, no less important, but much less evident even among “religious” people. It is gratitude for “the work of our hands.” We are accustomed to look at so-called man-made items and think that our crafting of the final product means that we are responsible for the whole. We forget that God stands at the end of a chain of causality that leads even to this table, this tallit, this prayerbook. How proud we are of our accomplishments! How lax we are in acknowledging the One who stands behind them all!
The bikkurim ceremony serves as a corrective to this arrogance. The farmer plows; he sows; he reaps; he works the field, with his own hands, day after day. And then, he stands before the priest and says, “I present the firsts fruits of the land, fruits that God has given me.” In that one sentence he, as it were, erases himself from the picture. Not his hands, not his might, but God’s. “The first fruits of the land, fruits that God has given me.”
For Rabbi Neiman, for Rabbi Hunah, and for the simple farmer, gratitude is more than a pietistic acknowledgment that something or someone called “God” created the universe a long time ago. Gratitude is really about the recognition that all that we are and all that we have is from elsewhere. Gratitude is a corrective against the sort of arrogance that exiles God from our lives and leads to the death of the spirit.
In that spirit, then, let me conclude with one more word of thanks, to the One who moment by moment keeps me alive and sustains me, and who has brought me to this moment of return, filled with joy. Baruch ata adonai, eloheynu melech ha’olam, she’hecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higi’anu lazman hazeh.