I was privileged to grow up in a joyfully Jewish home. My father, of blessed memory, was a prominent rabbi and my mother, of blessed memory, was an old fashioned rebbitzen (rabbi’s wife) who embraced her role with extraordinary grace and style. She used her fine aesthetic sense not only in her legendary displays of food served to countless guests, but also to beautify our home in a uniquely Jewish way. Naturally, we had the expected displays of ceremonial objects, but they were not enough. When I was six, we moved into the large New York apartment in which I grew up, and my mother found a skilled painter to help her transform our kitchen into a sacred Jewish space. I watched in amazement as the Italian artisan, equipped with a piece of calligraphy my mother had provided, climbed up his tall ladder, and in the space between the wallpaper and our absurdly high ceiling, carefully scribed the words, v’achalta, v’savahta, uvairachta et adonai elohecha,“You should eat, have your fill and give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:10). That verse, seared into my memory, appears in this week’s Torah portion of Ekev, part of Moses’ farewell address to a fledgling people, the Children of Israel.
To paraphrase: if we are so fortunate as to have all that we need to be satisfied, then we should embrace that blessing unstintingly and enjoy it fully. But what follows is a startling departure from Biblical norms. We are then to bless God; we ourselves are to be a source of blessings. While this verse may be about eating (what more Jewish topic could there be?), its underlying message extends way beyond the simple acts of eating and praying. The passage is no less than a call to respond ethically, and to appreciate the responsibilities inherent in being blessed with abundance. This call resonates deeply for us, a community which is largely (though by no means entirely) economically secure, if not thriving. How can we ensure that we’re not only the recipient of blessings but also their conduit? How can this inspire the work that we do every day here at JCRC?
In our text we read that a blessed life is fraught with certain inherent dangers. Along with consumption, often comes amnesia. Embedded in the description of blessings the Children of Israel will receive are repeated admonitions against forgetting their past vulnerability, and the journey that transformed them from a collection of slaves to a holy people. Keeping the memory of their own enslavement fresh is a call to empathy, repeated throughout the Torah, a challenge to do right by the enslaved, the powerless and marginalized among us. So today, as we are guided by the not too distant memory of our own vulnerability as refugees to this country, we speak out for a compassionate and welcoming stance to today’s refugees fleeing danger and trauma.
Perhaps the greatest danger of abundance is in succumbing to the all too human impulse to believe that we are simply reaping what we have sown; that we are uniquely entitled to all the blessings we enjoy (“it is my power and the might of my hand that has won this wealth for me” Deuteronomy 8:17). In today’s parlance, we risk being unaware of our unearned privilege and complacent about our brothers and sisters who though equally deserving, are blocked by class, race, sexual orientation or national origin, from accessing the same resources and opportunities, and who struggle daily for survival, dignity and justice. So first we provide service to alleviate immediate need, by helping children in underserved schools discover the joy of reading, and encouraging young members of our community to share their blessings by volunteering to serve food, combat isolation and rebuild homes. And then we engage in longer term change through legislative advocacy and community organizing to ensure that such blessings of education, affordable housing, economic stability and safe communities, are accessible to all.
We remember our own history in this country, when strong public institutions and supports enabled our grandparents and great grandparents to access all the bounty that America had to offer. So we work to ensure that those on today’s margins can rely on the same robust resources, to access opportunity and build lives of hope and promise for their children and grandchildren.
We invite you to join us in embracing the myriad blessings we enjoy in our community, giving thanks for them and working with us to safeguard those same blessings throughout our community.