With Rosh Hashanah only ten days away, this is the season of lessons learned (reflections from the past year) and learning lessons (propelling us into the new year). The uncertainty resulting from the ever-evolving pandemic looms large in almost everything we do, including our preparations for the High Holy Days. Within the past week, more than one person has described “feeling the heaviness” in the world right now. How can we do any spiritual preparation when we’re unsure what tomorrow will bring? The pandemic has forced all of us to adapt and re-configure so many aspects of our lives, and our ritual celebrations are no exception. So what are we to do? (Hint: part of the answer includes Beit T’Shuvah’s virtual services. Click here for more info.)
The pandemic has caused us to find and create sacred space in front of our screens, not in a synagogue. It has caused us to find community in our separation and connection in our distancing. Last year, our Founder Harriet Rossetto wrote, “… deprived of many of our traditional High Holiday rituals, we are invited to find new meaning in the coming Days of Awe. … Relieved of the trappings of external definition, how do I rediscover my essential self-worth?”
Fortunately, this week’s Torah portion provides some guidance for staying connected to spirit and our essential self-worth. We find ourselves in the final chapters of the final book of the Torah, in the final days of Moses’ life. He is standing in front of his community, offering a farewell address, including both reminders from the past forty years and instructions about the next phase of their journey.
Looking to the future, Moses describes a ritual that the Israelites are to initiate once they’ve settled in the Promised Land. Every year, he says, they are to bring a portion of the first fruits of their harvest to the Holy Sanctuary as a donation to the priests and as a sign of gratitude to G!D. He goes on to spell out the ritual in unusually specific detail, including a fixed prayer each Israelite is to recite upon handing over their contribution.
I’ve always understood these instructions to be G!D’s pre-emptive intervention against the arrogance and entitlement that can result from enjoying the fruits of one’s labor. It’s easy to imagine how the Israelites, once settled and secure, could begin to forget all the help they received along the way on their journey from slavery to freedom. In other words, G!D commanded them to act their way into right thinking in order to access and affirm gratitude; to practice it and thus to keep it in the front of their mind, and so to maintain a sense of humility.
However, as Rabbi Mark, our Founding Rabbi, reminded me this week, gratitude can also emerge as we complete a task, as we achieve a goal. While it is true that success can breed a sense of over-confidence and entitlement, it’s also the pathway for joy. And it is encouraging that we can connect with gratitude by leaning into and engaging fully in our life’s work and purpose.
Let’s look closer at the opening verse:
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… (Deuteronomy 26:1-2)
The gratitude that follows giving first fruits stems not just from the gifts the Israelites received from G!D, but also because of their own efforts to claim their place in the world. Working in our gifts, our passion produces an offering that is full of joy and gratitude, if only we will remember to focus on it.
Given all the heaviness that surrounds us these days, it can be challenging to claim and maintain a place in this world that feels like our own. I find that even searching inside to access my gratitude can seem like just another burden that I’m supposed to be feeling. Enter our text: reminding me that the path towards gratitude can be guided by my willingness to take purposeful and intentional action.
There have been times when it feels like the solemnity and heaviness of the High Holy Days (and spiritual work, in general) can be an obstacle to clearly knowing our place in the world. A spiritual accounting is a big undertaking, one that can overwhelm us with anxiety and shame. There’s another element in the earlier verse that provides me guidance for staying focused and navigating through the challenges of the spiritual work, which then helps me to clarify and claim my place. As we see, G!D makes reference to the “heritage” of the Israelites, reminding them that the present reality is not just because of their own merits, but also because of the merits and efforts of those that came before them. Thus, remembering G!D’s faithfulness to those that came before me reminds me that feelings and expressions of gratitude are not just about my own well-being, but actually about obligation and service.
The text actually bears this out, indicating that joy follows contributions and expressions of gratitude, especially when we bring others into our celebration. The verses state that once the Israelites complete the ritual of the first fruits ritual…
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. (Deuteronomy 26:11)
May our preparations and service during this Season of Awe lead us to gratitude and joy for ourselves, our community, and our neighbors.
L’shana tova and Shabbat shalom!
Chaplain Adam Siegel