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Channeling Gratitude

Dvar Torah: Channeling Gratitude

Rabbi Morris Panitz, Director of “Immersive Experiences” American Jewish University,  CY 2016-17

V’achalta, v’savata, u’veirachta – “When you have eaten and are satisfied, give thanks to the Lord your God…” (Deuteronomy 8:10)
These famous words are positioned between a promise and a warning.  Speaking to the generation poised to enter the Land of Israel, Moses vividly describes the agricultural abundance that awaits them.  “A land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing…” (Deut. 8:7).  The promise of a full belly evokes the religious response of gratitude- u’veirachta.
However, the verses that follow depict the risks of such abundance.  “When you have eaten and are satisfied ( tochal v’savata), and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flock have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God…” (Deut. 8:12-14).
Could it be that the very fulfillment of God’s promise is what leads to arrogance and distance from God?
Note that there isn’t something inherently problematic in our text with the acquisition of wealth.  The abundance of food, water, and valuable metals are embedded into the promise of the land, but without proper acknowledgement of its true Source, wealth becomes spiritually dangerous.  When the religious rhythm of  v’achalta v’savata, u’veirachta (Deut. 8:10)is replaced by tochal  v’savata (Deut. 8:12), arrogance fills the void left by unspoken words of gratitude.  Abundance only remains a source of blessing when accompanied by words of blessing.
The  mitzvah of reciting  birkhat ha-mazon after eating a meal, which emerges from this verse, ritualizes the expression of gratitude and dependence on God.  At its best, the Grace after Meals rightly reminds us not to take our sustenance for granted.  However, the challenges of rote religious behaviorism apply here as well, threatening to turn  birkat ha-mazon into yet another rushed and intention-less prayer.  To counteract this complacency, the Jerusalem Talmud (Brakhot 56a) offers a strategy meant to infuse our prayers with meaning.
“Rabbi Ba the son of Rav Hiyya bar Abba teaches: If he ate while walking, he must stand and bless.  If he ate standing, he must sit and bless.  If he ate sitting, he must recline and bless.  If he ate reclining, he must enwrap himself and bless.  And if he did this, he is like the angels who serve God.”
Life moves quickly.  Too often we find ourselves eating on the run, in the car, or in between meetings.  Interestingly, this text makes no claim on precisely how we eat; rather, the prescribed shift is found instead in how we express gratitude.  An incremental shift in posture helps bring about the mindful recitation of our prayer.  When we slow down for long enough to recognize that our physical nourishment is a gift from God, we align ourselves with God’s promise.
Yet, prayer in its fullest form isn’t mindfulness alone; it’s a call to action.  Remembering God’s kindness compels us to “keep God’s commandments, rules, and laws, which I enjoin upon you today” (Deut. 8:11).  Right now, throughout the United States, children accustomed to receiving multiple meals each day from public schools are going to bed hungry.  The prayer recited on a full stomach must dislodge the apathy that too often drives our inaction around food insecurity and pervasive hunger.   U’veirachta is a call to channel one’s gratitude into fulfilling the promise of abundance for all of God’s children.
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