You might have noticed I’ve started experimenting with a bit of lightness in the caption. This week has a double whammy.
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of returning to my hometown, and my dear mother, who has always and only ever been very supportive of me, told me how proud she was when one of her friends told her that she is a happy subscriber (Thank you, Betty!).
This newsletter is not quite my mother’s cup of tea, bless her, so she was struggling to remember the name, and to her credit, she got pretty close.
“What’s it called again? TorahReflux?”
So from now, I have no doubt that my entire family will refer to my work as TorahReflux.
Time to rebrand…?
Thank you, Mum! I love you anyway.
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And here’s some of what I have to say about this week’s Parsha; I hope you enjoy it, and as always, I hope you have a fabulous Shabbos.
PS - The last article is longer than usual, but in my estimation, well worth your time. If you get through it, I am very curious about what you think of it.
4 minute read
One of the most formative moments in Yakov’s life was when he fled his parent’s home after obtaining Avraham’s blessing from Yitzchak. He was no longer safe around Esau, and his mother Rivka advised him to escape to her brother’s house.
Yakov left with nothing more than the clothes on his back, and he would never return home again. Alone and afraid, Yakov slept one night and had a stark vision of a stairway to heaven, with angels climbing and descending over him. When he woke, he asked God to protect him, and God promised to do so.
It’s a powerful story about God’s presence and power transcending national boundaries, about the unique and eternal covenant between God and Avraham’s descendants, and the everlasting gift of the Land of Israel. It speaks to us by acknowledging the tensions that threaten us in exile, with its all too relatable struggle of trying to build and secure our future in a hostile world.
The Sfas Emes notes that Yakov’s journey is one we all make on a personal and national level, escaping Esau’s clutches in one form or another. We must eventually leave our comfort zones, perhaps when we realize that the familiar safety and security we once knew have eroded beneath us and that we need to find someplace else.
The Torah doesn’t just say where Yakov went; it emphasizes that he left Beersheva – וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה. Rashi suggests that this indicates that when we leave somewhere, it loses a bit of its luster. The Kedushas Levi teaches that what makes a place sparkle is its people, so it loses a little of what made it special when they leave. The Midrash suggests that God folded up the entire Land of Israel into Yakov’s pocket while he slept, illustrating that the greatness of a place is bound to the presence of great people. You contribute to the places you are a part of, and they are worse off when you leave. But your contribution goes where you go, every step along the way, and all the spaces in between.
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights this story as critical to understanding what it means to be an upright Jew standing in the face of the adversity of exile. If Avraham’s great test was to leave his homeland – לֶךְ־לְךָ – then this was Yakov’s, and it is more demanding than Avraham’s. When God asked Avraham to set out, he set out with his family, wealth, and great renown. At this moment in Yakov’s life, God had not yet spoken to him, and he was completely isolated and penniless, every bit the outsider – וַיֵּצֵא. Yakov’s loneliness and despair are palpable when he asks God to be with him – he has no place, nothing, and nobody.
At the end of Yakov’s life, he laments the difficulty and misery that blighted his life. Yet even in what R’ Jonathan Sacks describes as the liminal space, the non-moments in between the great chapters of Yakov’s life, he sees visions and grapples with angels, and God promises to keep him safe, watching over him like a parent.
R’ Hirsch highlights how Yakov starts with nothing and nobody and finds himself nowhere precisely because Yakov doesn’t need any of that to become who he’s meant to be. He has everything he needs within him already.
Moreover, God appears to Yakov and promises to protect him precisely at this low point, before he is somewhere, before he is someone, and before he has something. Yakov has not yet undergone his transformation to Yisrael; he is not yet the man he will become. Having just left his parents’ house, he has only just begun his journey into adulthood. But precisely at that moment, at Yakov’s lowest, God appears for the very first time and promises to keep him safe. The Torah tells us nothing about how Yakov earns this remarkable privilege, perhaps indicating to us that God is there at our rock bottom moment, in the darkness and without cause, with the promise that we can shine brightly once again, perhaps even more than in the good old days.
R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that this theme precisely tracks the trajectory of Yakov’s life story. Yakov is born not just a twin, but literally holding on to his brother’s foot, and his childhood is defined by competition with Esau – his identity exists solely in relation to his brother; he must be attached to get by, which perhaps sheds some light on why Yitzchak may have doubted Yakov in his youth. Years afterward, when Yakov and Esau meet up again, Esau offers Yakov to join forces, and Yakov declines in order to travel alone with his own family – Yakov’s ultimate victory over Esau comes when Yakov develops his ability to transcend competition and strife to stand on his own. Esau has no power over Yakov when Yakov can resist not only Esau’s strength but can gracefully decline his diplomatic overtures as well.
The defining struggle of Yakov’s life is in the enigmatic incident at the river, when Yakov battled a mysterious and shadowy figure we identify as Esau’s guardian angel, and the question is posed once and for all, can Yakov stand alone? He holds his own and earns the title of Yisrael.
Yakov’s story is a quest to pave his own way, build a home, and secure his family’s future in a hostile and turbulent environment. But the catalyst was Yakov all along, and it was within him all along.
Taking the dream at face value, we might wonder why Yakov doesn’t ever think to climb the ladder to heaven. There is simply no need to climb the ladder in this interpretation, and it fits that Yakov actually goes back to sleep! Yakov can build his family, and they will impact the world through their actions, and he doesn’t need inherited wealth or renown, and he doesn’t need anybody’s help. Even when he is nowhere, he doesn’t need to climb the ladder to become other than who he is; who he is and where he is will do perfectly.
The legacy of Yakov is that we have a spark within us, and we take it wherever we go. If we’ve been anywhere great, we are a part of what made it so, and if we did it there, we could do it anywhere. The model of Yakov’s life demonstrates that we can even do it in the middle of nowhere; that humans have a generative capacity to produce and contain growth and sanctity.
The holiest person isn’t some saint, the holiest place isn’t the Beis HaMikdash, and the holiest moment isn’t on Yom Kippur. It’s you, right here, today.
You are where you’re supposed to be right now.
3 minute read
In the stories of the middle phase of Yakov’s life, the recurring theme is internal clashes within the family. There is a constant tension between Rachel and Leah, and it spills down to their children when Yosef’s brothers hate him for being Yakov’s favorite.
To be sure, multiple moments mark them out as great humans. Rachel recognized her father for the scoundrel he was and gave Leah the secret code signals on what was supposed to be Rachel’s wedding day so that Leah wouldn’t be discovered and humiliated; Yosef saved his family from starvation when he could have taken revenge.
But as much as we hold these individuals up as our righteous and saintly ancestors and even bless and name our children after them, they seem to compete and fight rather often, vying for Yakov’s attention.
What are we supposed to make of it? Is it every man and woman for themselves?
R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz cautions us against this superficial analysis.
Some things are constant, like the characteristics of Avraham, defined by his loving outreach and warm, kind heart, and God promises that Avraham’s name would be the one we highlight in our prayers – מָגֵן אַבְרָהָם.
But past that common denominator, perfection looks different from person to person, and it doesn’t follow that what’s good for me will work for you. The correct perspective to understand these stories – and ourselves – is that we are all different people with different personalities and perspectives, with different responsibilities requiring different things.
The stories of Yakov’s family are of people vying to leave their mark, fighting to contribute, fighting to matter, fighting to leave an impact, and it’s something we should notice that our greats tend to do, raising their voices to draw out individuality and avoid homogeneity. These clashes are not about a winning ideology; they’re about making sure that different voices exist.
The notion of collectivism and unity – אַחְדוּת – is all too often propounded to squash individuality, and we mustn’t tolerate that. On the contrary, the Torah is indisputably tolerant of pluralism, the existence of different voices. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, people are not dollars. Your voice and existence are not fungible. You are not replaceable, and we need you to shine.
There is a beautiful and uncommon blessing we say upon seeing a crowd of multitudes – חכם הרזים – the knower of secrets, which the Gemara explains as acknowledging God’s greatness in knowing each of us in our individual hearts, despite our different faces and minds. This is a subtle but vital point – God is great not because of the glory and sheer size of the crowd, but because God can see each of us as distinct within the sea of all too forgettable faces; God can see the individual within the collective.
It is a blessing in praise of the God who creates diversity in our world, rejoicing in our different minds, opinions, and thoughts. It is a blessing over Jewish pluralism. It is one thing to tolerate our differences; it is quite another to acknowledge them as a blessing. It is one thing to love Jews because we are all Jewish; that is, the same. It is quite another to love Jews because they are different from ourselves.
Sure, we have a group identity, but there is also individuality, and everyone expresses their sparkle in their own unique way.
As much as the world has gotten smaller in a certain sense, our world is also bigger today than it’s ever been, so it’s not zero-sum. Opportunities are abundant all around us, and you mustn’t be shy about shining in whatever way you do it best.
Our world will only sparkle when you do.
5 minute read
If we try to imagine the cunning and devious Lavan’s house, it can’t have been a particularly nurturing and safe environment to grow up in. All the same, that environment produces quality individuals in the forms of Rachel and Leah. Moreover, it is where our ancestor Yakov comes into himself and where all his sons were born.
However, there is a palpable strain and tension between Rachel and Leah, which repeatedly surfaces. Yakov loved Rachel, but Lavan substituted Leah in her place at their wedding, and Rachel only married Yakov a little later. Rachel was loved but could not give Yakov children, whereas Leah, who gave Yakov his sons, was hated. One day, a young Reuven picked some flowers for his mother Leah, which the Midrash suggests might have been a fertility supplement. All the same, we recognize it for what it is, that joyful moment in a parent’s life when a child does something sweet.
Rachel asked Leah to share that moment with her, and Leah bristled at the suggestion:
וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן בִּימֵי קְצִיר-חִטִּים, וַיִּמְצָא דוּדָאִים בַּשָּׂדֶה, וַיָּבֵא אֹתָם, אֶל-לֵאָה אִמּוֹ; וַתֹּאמֶר רָחֵל, אֶל-לֵאָה, תְּנִי-נָא לִי, מִדּוּדָאֵי בְּנֵךְ. וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ, הַמְעַט קַחְתֵּךְ אֶת-אִישִׁי, וְלָקַחַת, גַּם אֶת-דּוּדָאֵי בְּנִי; וַתֹּאמֶר רָחֵל, לָכֵן יִשְׁכַּב עִמָּךְ הַלַּיְלָה, תַּחַת, דּוּדָאֵי בְנֵךְ. וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב מִן-הַשָּׂדֶה, בָּעֶרֶב, וַתֵּצֵא לֵאָה לִקְרָאתוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלַי תָּבוֹא, כִּי שָׂכֹר שְׂכַרְתִּיךָ בְּדוּדָאֵי בְּנִי; וַיִּשְׁכַּב עִמָּהּ, בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא – In the days of the wheat harvest, Reuven went and found flowers in the field. He brought them to Leah, his mother, and Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s flowers.” And Leah said to her, “Is it not enough that you took my husband, but now you also wish to take my son’s flowers?” So Rachel said, “Fine, he shall sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s flowers.” Yakov came from the field in the evening, and Leah went to meet him, and she said, “You shall be with me, because I have won you for my son’s flowers.” (30:14-16)
This is a very terse and complex interaction, and there is typically a lot of focus on Rachel’s grace and dignity in not destroying Leah with a fiery response. Knowing the story as we do, we know that Yakov served Lavan faithfully for seven years to marry the love of his life, Rachel, only for Lavan to cruelly substitute Leah in her place at the wedding ceremony with a phony excuse.
R’ Shalom Schwadron teaches that while it was significant enough for Rachel to want to prevent Leah from public humiliation, the ability to refrain from embarrassing her even in a private conversation between sisters shows the extent of Rachel’s greatness. R’ Mordechai Druck highlights that Rachel refused to keep the score, despite the pain she lived with.
But, admirable as that may be, how can Leah have the audacity and gall to suggest that Rachel was taking Leah’s husband when it was Leah who had taken Rachel’s husband? Leah is living Rachel’s life! Leah is married to her love, took her place at her own wedding, and is now giving her husband the children that she herself cannot. Doesn’t Leah have it precisely backward? What was she thinking?
R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that Leah was saying that it was bad enough that Rachel deprived Leah of the companionship of having a husband – הַמְעַט קַחְתֵּךְ אֶת-אִישִׁי; but all Leah had going for her was the kids! And now Rachel wanted to take the only thing Leah had over her by giving Yakov kids – וְלָקַחַת, גַּם אֶת-דּוּדָאֵי בְּנִי.
If we consider Leah’s perspective for a moment, what was she supposed to have done? Lavan was a trickster and a powerful man; do we expect that she had any choice in the matter? She did what she had to do in the moment and tried to get on with her life and make the best of it. As the Seforno puts it, why did Rachel still have to marry Yakov after that happened, sabotaging Leah so she was hated? It’s all Rachel’s fault!
This reading makes sense, and it fits.
R’ David Fohrman suggests a compelling and explosive reading based on Midrash.
The story about the flowers is a re-enactment of the wedding night, recreating the past and healing all the hurt.
In the story of the flowers, it was Rachel’s night to be with Yakov, just like the first wedding night. There, Leah was substituted in secret, but this time, Rachel brought Leah in with everyone’s consent – no longer Lavan’s victims. Rachel willingly gave Leah that night, letting go of years of pain, choosing to share what should have been her exclusive relationship with Yakov. Rachel hears Leah’s pain and perspective, that to Leah, Rachel stood in the way of Leah’s companionship, and Rachel acts on this and stops obstructing Leah.
Once Rachel does this, the Torah never describes her as jealous ever again. She has healed and given Leah permission to be in the relationship.
What’s more, Leah boldly goes out to greet Yakov – וַתֵּצֵא לֵאָה לִקְרָאתוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלַי תָּבוֹא, כִּי שָׂכֹר שְׂכַרְתִּיךָ, mirroring Yakov’s bargain with Lavan – מַה־מַּשְׂכֻּרְתֶּךָ / שָׂכֹר שְׂכַרְתִּיךָ. The fraud of the wedding night is undone and quite literally unveiled. Leah can present herself as she truly is, burying Yakov’s resentment for good as well – the Torah never describes Leah as hated ever again.
Right after this moment of healing, God remembers Rachel and blesses her with children:
וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-רָחֵל; וַיִּשְׁמַע אֵלֶיהָ אֱלֹהִים, וַיִּפְתַּח אֶת-רַחְמָהּ – Hashem remembered Rachel, heard her, and opened her womb. (30:22)
Rashi explains that what God remembered was Rachel’s kindness to Leah on the night of the wedding. Rachel could have ruined the marriage but chose not to, saving her sister from humiliation, playing a vital role in ensuring that Lavan’s scheme wasn’t discovered until it was too late. But that was years ago!
God remembered Rachel now, not because of her pain, but because of her healing. When things were most challenging for her, she could hear the perspective of the sister she’d turned into her rival and dug deep to make peace.
On Tisha b’Av, we read Jeremiah’s consolation, where God listens to Rachel:
קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל־בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל־בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ… מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי וְעֵינַיִךְ מִדִּמְעָה כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ נְאֻם־ה וְשָׁבוּ מֵאֶרֶץ אוֹיֵב – A cry is heard in Ramah; wailing, bitter weeping Rachel is weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted over her children; they are gone… “Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears! For there is a reward for your labor, declares Hashem, they shall return from the enemy’s land…” (31:15,16)
Jeremiah tells us that beyond the tears and prayers, which Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, and Moshe could provide as well, God only listens to Rachel because of something heroic she did – יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ. Even better than being sad is becoming our own hero.
In our greatest moments of pain, can we take a step back from our hurt and ask what the situation might look like from our opponent’s point of view? The ability to ask that question is nothing short of heroic, but it’s the way out of conflict.
3 minute read
Oftentimes in the Torah, people’s and place’s names are a play on words describing some event or feeling of the moment – Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, Yisrael, Moshe, and many more. Quite arguably, it might even be the rule, with only a few exceptions. Leah named each of her children in keeping with this theme, describing what each child’s arrival introduced into her life. When she had her fourth child, Yehuda, she described how his birth precipitated the arrival of gratitude into her life:
וַתֹּאמֶר הַפַּעַם אוֹדֶה אֶת־ה עַל־כֵּן קָרְאָה שְׁמוֹ יְהוּדָה – And she said, “Now I have to thank God,” so she named him Yehuda. (30:35)
Curiously, the Gemara identifies this moment as significant for being the first time in history that a human had properly thanked God.
But we know from reading the stories up to this point that that’s not true! Noach thanked God for saving him after the flood, Avraham thanked God for averting Yitzchak’s sacrifice, and Yakov thanked God for saving him from Esau and Lavan, among others.
Moreover, Leah had been showered with blessings! Coming from Lavan’s house, she married Yakov and was already the mother to three of the great Tribes of Israel. She had so much to be thankful for! With the arrival of Yehuda, her fourth son, what newfound conception of gratitude did she discover? What was so fresh and unique about this particular expression of thanks, such that the Gemara says had never been done before?
Rashi addresses this, citing the Midrash that Yakov’s wives might have expected to have three sons each out of the twelve he was destined to have, but the arrival of a fourth son confounded this expectation.
R’ Yaakov Hillel highlights that the arrival of a fourth son didn’t just confound the expectation that she would have three sons; it confounded the very notion of expectations!
Leah acknowledged that what she had already received was not just her fair share but rather a gift and blessing, and no one before her had ever recognized that. R’ Avraham Pam notes that up until that moment, people thanked God for discrete, particular things, often with a sacrificial offering on an altar. But Yehuda’s name had a totally different perspective – it was a generalized, global “thank you,” an everyday appreciation recalled every time she would say her own son’s name.
Leah was the pioneer of gratitude in the world, and Jews are called after Yehuda, mirroring Leah’s play on words. As R’ Yitzchak Hutner notes, the word itself has a secondary embedded meaning of concession – להודות. As humans, we deeply wish to be free and independent, and at the moment we appreciate another, we concede our frail weakness in having required the assistance of another.
This interpretation of gratitude also resolves the famous question of why there are eight days of Chanuka if the miracle was only the seven extra days; the question presupposes taking the first day for granted.
R’ Shai Held highlights that the very first word of the day on a Jew’s lips is מודה אני, expressing thanks for waking up to a new day, subordinating the self to the existence of gratitude. A powerful lesson from something as trivial as waking up!
When we feel entitled to something, we often don’t fully appreciate it, even once we have it. It takes practice and a conscious effort to change that thinking, but it’s life-changing if we can get there.
We would do well to learn from Leah’s example and live up to the charge of Judaism, proudly carrying Yehuda’s name, which calls us to express our gratitude for all the blessings we are fortunate to have, from the biggest to the smallest.
8 minute read
Emotional states are everything.
While all animals experience emotions, they are predominantly simple; human capacity for complex thought uniquely impacts the context and depth of how we perceive and experience our emotions. Some emotions, like guilt, can come from our understanding of our role in events in the external world.
One of the highest human emotions is gratitude, which affirms that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits that we have received. Research has shown that gratitude is one of the most powerful predictors of wellbeing, over and above most known factors, including health and wealth. Gratitude is tightly linked to feeling happy, empathetic, energetic, forgiving, hopeful, optimistic, and spiritual while feeling less depressed, envious, and neurotic.
The Mesilas Yesharim teaches that God’s entire purpose in Creation was to have a counterpart to share the gift of God’s goodness with – humans, created as we are in God’s image and likeness.
It follows that recognizing goodness activates and draws out what’s best in us; gratitude and recognition arguably form the undercurrent of the vast majority of mitzvos, and it might not be a stretch to say perhaps all of Judaism.
The Midrash imagines God walking Adam through Eden. After reveling in how beautiful and wonderful each tree is, God would say that each marvelous one had been designed for human enjoyment. Inasmuch as we can say that God could want anything, God wants humans to enjoy His gifts and recognize and appreciate those blessings.
The first words God says to the Jewish People articulate that God wants to be recognized – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם – and not just for higher-order activities such as Creation, but for a specific and personal intervention in their lives, that God had rescued them from slavery. The next thing God has to say is that God cannot tolerate idolatry, where humans would misattribute God’s work to other, lesser powers. Idolatry betrays and demeans the good that God has done, and ranks among the most egregious sins towards God; idolatry entirely undermines God’s purpose for Creation, that God’s goodness to be appreciated and loved – וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ!
In the agrarian world of the Torah, there used to be an annual national thanksgiving ritual – the mitzvah of Bikkurim. Farmers would tie a string to the first fruits that sprouted. Then, after the harvest, the Mishna describes how the entire country would sing and dance together at a massive street festival in Jerusalem to accompany the farmers dedicating those first fruits at the Beis HaMikdash to express their gratitude for the harvest – and almost everyone was a farmer.
On arrival, the farmers would present their baskets to the attending Kohen and recite some affirmations, including a brief recital of Jewish history. They’d recount how Yakov fled from Lavan, that his family descended to Egypt, and that God rescued the Jewish People and gave them the Land of Israel – אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי / וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה / וַיִּתֶּן־לָנוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת. The prayer closes with an instruction to the farmer to rejoice – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ אַתָּה וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ.
It’s hard to overstate how central our sages saw the mitzvah of Bikkurim. The Sifri suggests that the merit of Bikkurim is what entitles the people to the Land of Israel; the Midrash Tanchuma says that the merit of Bikkurim fuels the world’s prayers; and the Midrash teaches that the mitzvah of Bikkurim perpetuates nothing less than the entire universe.
But there’s one part that doesn’t quite fit.
The farmer would work his field manually; weeding, plowing; sowing; pruning; watering, and guarding it. It redeems no less than an entire year’s work when the harvest comes, and ensures food security for the next year!
The farmer has worried for a year, living with anxiety and uncertainty. After the harvest, those troubles are gone; he can sleep easy now, and it might be the one time a year he can undoubtedly pray from a place of love and security, not fear and worry. So it’s a strange thing for the Torah to instruct the farmer to rejoice – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ.
If this is the happiest anyone will realistically be, why does the Torah need to command joy?
Healthy and well-adjusted humans require a sense of satisfaction and self-worth that comes from hard work and self-sufficiency – בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם. Our sages call unearned benefits the bread of shame – נהמא דכיסופא / לחם של בושה. When a child begins to individuate from the parent and insists on doing it “all by myself,” we recognize the child undergoing a healthy phase of human development. Eternal childishness and helplessness is a sickness, not a blessing. And after all, self-reliance is the American Dream!
But we can take doing it “all by yourself” too far – וְאָמַרְתָּ בִּלְבָבֶךָ כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת־הַחַיִל הַזֶּה.
So perhaps the challenge for farmers – and us – isn’t only in celebrating the blessings – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב; it’s that even after taking a bare piece of land and making it fruit all by himself, he has to admit that he didn’t truly do it alone – אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ.
As R’ Yitzchak Hutner notes, מודה doesn’t just mean thanksgiving; it also means to confess. When we thank another, we concede that we needed the assistance of another, admitting our frail weakness and showing our vulnerability. We acknowledge that another has shared gifts with us, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives. Genuine gratitude strengthens relationships by helping us recognize and appreciate how we’ve been affirmed and supported by others. But our ego can inhibit us if we don’t get it in check, telling us we did it alone.
Gratitude affirms that self-sufficiency is an illusion, perhaps God’s greatest gift of all. John Rawls sharply suggested that a person cannot claim credit for being born with greater natural endowments, such as athleticism or intelligence, as it is purely the result of a natural lottery. As the Rambam explains, our lives are a gift within a gift; by definition, our starting points cannot be unearned, so gratitude should be our first and overwhelming response to everything. Sure, we may deserve the fruits of what we do with our gifts, but the starting point of having any of those things to start with is the more significant gift by far.
By thanking God loudly and in public, we firmly reject the worldview of self-sufficiency or that we did it ourselves – כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת־הַחַיִל הַזֶּה. But perhaps the ritual also helps recalibrate our expectations.
It is natural to be pleased with where you are but to want more still. It’s human nature to want more – healthily expressed, we call it ambition, and unhealthily, we call it greed – יש לו מנה רוצה מאתיים. You’re glad you got something, even though it wasn’t quite what you wanted.
Nothing undermines gratitude as much as expectations. There is an inverse relationship between expectations and gratitude; the more expectations you have, the less appreciation you will have, and it’s obvious why. If you get what you expect, you will not be particularly grateful for getting it.
Expectations are insidious because although we can superficially express gratitude, what looks like gratitude might actually be entitlement cloaked in religiosity and self-righteousness. It’s a blind spot because you think you’re thankful even though you didn’t get what you wanted! But that’s not joy; it’s the definition of resentment.
Getting gratitude right brings out what’s best in humans, encouraging us not just to appreciate life’s gifts but to repay them or pay them forward. But beyond gratitude’s incredible blessings, getting gratitude wrong is catastrophic and is one of the catalysts for all the Torah’s curses and prophecies of doom:
תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא־עָבַדְתָּ אֶת ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְטוּב לֵבָב מֵרֹב כֹּל – … Since you did not serve God with joy and good spirit when you had it all… (28:47)
It’s a sentiment the Jewish People expressed uncomfortably often in the wilderness, complaining about lack of food and water, about the dangers they faced from the Egyptians as they were leaving, about the inhabitants of the land they were about to enter, and about the manna and the lack of meat and vegetables.
Moshe warns us how his people lacked gratitude in difficult times and warns them of making the same mistake in good times:
הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹר מִצְותָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם׃ פֶּן־תֹּאכַל וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבָתִּים טֹבִים תִּבְנֶה וְיָשָׁבְתָּ׃ וּבְקָרְךָ וְצֹאנְךָ יִרְבְּיֻן וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב יִרְבֶּה־לָּךְ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר־לְךָ יִרְבֶּה׃ וְרָם לְבָבֶךָ וְשָׁכַחְתָּ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים׃ – Take care lest you forget Hashem your God and fail to keep His commandments, His rules, and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today. 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, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Hashem your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. (8:11-14)
So perhaps the short history of how the farmers got their land calibrates our thinking. Our enemies might have slaughtered us; but God has given us our lives and security – אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי. We might have been spared death, but we could have been enslaved or subjugated to any number of enemies; yet God has given us our labor – וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה. And on top of safety and freedom, we have material abundance – וַיִּתֶּן־לָנוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת. With that kind of context, it would be ridiculous to think we somehow had it coming or that we did it by ourselves!
We don’t practice Bikkurim today, and we’re missing out on a vital aspect of Judaism. We’ve probably all seen the contemporary analog, though – many businesses frame and hang their first dollar of revenue. It’s sentimental, but it’s a powerful symbol, and just like Bikkurim, it is a ritual that captures the moment you are overwhelmed with gratitude and joy. By dedicating our first sign of success, the first fruit, the first dollar, we protect ourselves from the insidious thought that we did it ourselves or the hubris that we had it coming.
The Hebrew term for gratitude literally means “recognizing the good” – הכרת הטוב; practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours. The things you are lacking are still there, and in expressing gratitude, no one is saying you need to ignore what’s missing. But there is no limit to what we don’t have, and if that is where we focus, then our lives are inevitably filled with endless dissatisfaction.
As R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains, almost all the mitzvos of the Land of Israel reflect this sentiment in one way or another. By heavily regulating our use of the land, with Shemitta, Yovel, the Omer, Sukka, and the tithes, the Torah guides us that there is only one Landlord, and we are all here to serve – הַכֹּל נָתוּן בְּעֵרָבוֹן, וּמְצוּדָה פְרוּסָה עַל כָּל הַחַיִּים.
The Jewish people are named after Yehuda, a form of the Hebrew word for “thank you” – תודה. We’re not just the people of the book; we could more accurately be called the grateful people, the people of thank you.
As R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches, our blessings and prayers are a daily gratitude ritual; from the first words we say in the morning – מודה אני – to everything about life itself: for the human body, the physical world, the earth to stand on, the eyes we see with, and the air we breathe.
The Eliyahu Rabbah notes that the prayer leader repeats the Amidah aloud, and the congregation answers Amen, for all except the Thanksgiving blessing – מודים אנחנו לך. When it comes to saying thank you, we cannot delegate that to someone to do on our behalf. Gratitude has to come directly from ourselves.
While most of us aren’t farmers in the Land of Israel, each of us has a long list of blessings to be thankful for, and although we’re sorely missing a national thanksgiving ritual; we can learn its lesson that there is no such thing as self-made.
If there are any good things or accomplishments in our lives, we didn’t get them by ourselves; we all got plenty of help.
Gratitude has a fundamental connection and interaction with humility. It grounds us and orients us by recognizing that what we are and what we have is due to others, and above all, to God, and so the error of self-sufficiency isn’t just that it’s morally wrong – it’s factually wrong!
You need to recognize how blessed and fortunate you are, with no void of resentment for the things you don’t yet have; to be wholeheartedly and wholesomely thankful, decisively abandoning your expectations and entitlement, truly rejoicing with what you have – אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר? הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ.
Let gratitude, joy, and happiness spill over beyond the confines of the religious sphere and into the rest of your life – it will deepen and enrich your life. Thank God, and perhaps your spouse a little more; your parents, children, colleagues, clients, and community.
We can’t make it alone, and we’re not supposed to. We need each other; it’s a key design feature of being human – לֹא־טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ.
As the legendary physicist and science educator Carl Sagan once said, to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the entire universe.
Quote of the Week
"If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit."
Thought of the Week
If you’re surrounded by people who doubt you, you will doubt yourself, and eventually, you will start to believe it too.