Sunday, September 15, 2019

Ki Tavo (Modeh Ani/Bright Morning Stars)

“When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a heritage. . . you shall take some of the first fruits of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, put it in a basket, and got to the place where the Eternal your God will choose to establish the divine name.”

Gratitude—in Hebrew ha-karat ha-tov, literally recognizing the good—is a critical and sometimes difficult virtue to practice.  This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo bears this out.  The parshah opens with a ceremony of thanksgiving in which, each year, the Israelites offer the first fruits of their harvest to the priests in the Temple.  In this ritual drama, they recall their history of difficult challenges, celebrate God’s liberating power, and express their gratitude for their blessings. 

Commenting on this ritual, Maimonides focuses on the dangers of prosperity, which, if we are not mindful, can leave us spoiled and ungrateful.  He notes: “Offering the first fruits is a way people accustom themselves to being generous and a means of limiting the human appetite for more consumption, no only of food but of property…For people who amass fortunes and live in comfort often fall victim to self-centered excesses and arrogance.  They tend to abandon ethical considerations out of increasingly selfish concerns.  Bringing a basket of first fruits and reciting the prayer promotes humility.”

All too often, as Maimonides notes, we fail to recognize the blessings in our lives until they are threatened.  As Joni Mitchell famously put it, “You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.”  Our challenge is to put the lie to this teaching, to be thankful for what we’ve got before it’s gone.

Psychologist Robert Emmons echoes Maimonides’ concerns in his book, Thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.   Reflecting on what he calls “the poverty of affluence”, he reminds us that our wealthy, consumerist culture fuels ingratitude with its obsession with what we do not yet have.  We are constantly bombarded by messages to buy things we do not need, under the false premise that they will somehow make us happy.  But the true path to happiness lies not in acquisition but in gratitude—in wanting what we’ve got.

As we approach the Days of Awe, try to focus just a little more on enjoying what you have and counting your blessings rather than lamenting what you lack.   You might begin by keeping a gratitude journal, briefly noting, each day, a blessing or two for which you are thankful.  Or just spend ten seconds every morning by starting the day with the traditional prayer in which we give thanks for the greatest blessing of all: being alive. 

Modeh/Modah ani l’fanecha melech chai v’kayam sh’hechezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah rabbah emunatechah

I thank you, Eternal Sovereign, for restoring my soul to life—great is your mercy.

And for a great musical rendition of this blessing, done in a medley with the beautiful Appalachian folk song “Bright Morning Stars” see this live performance by Nefesh Mountain:

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