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Kehillat Israel Rabbi Emeritus
Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.


Click here to read Rabbi Reuben's new book A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion

‘Ekev – Gratitude

Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

“Remember the long way that your God Adonai has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, in order to test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts; whether you would keep the divine commandments or not. [God] subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your ancestors had ever known, in order to teach you that a human being does not live on bread alone, but that one may live on anything that Adonai decrees.”

 - Deuteronomy 8:2-3


P’shat – Explanation

Some Jews who study Torah view the Israelites’ hardships during their forty years of wilderness wandering as punishment for their lack of faith in God. In this passage, however, we learn that more than simply punishment, God designed the constant difficulties they faced to test the people’s faith, resilience, and commitment to follow God’s spiritual, communal and ethical laws.

The miracle of manna is a powerful example. God commanded the people to gather only enough manna to sustain them one day at a time. This directive made them keenly aware of the day-by-day fragility of their lives. Every day, the new manna they gathered to eat became an occasion to trust, acknowledge, and thank God for sustaining them that day. Out of the realization of life’s fragility came the opportunity to learn both faith and gratitude.

I like to call this “The Manna Principle.”  Because the Israelites continuously received sustenance sufficient for that day alone, they were forced to live with the realization that every day was potentially their last day—which, of course, is true for all of us as well. Ultimately, “The Manna Principle” is a lesson in gratitude for what we have right now in our lives.

In every generation, we have been challenged to live our lives in gratitude for what we possess today, and muster faith that if we are so privileged to greet tomorrow, our needs will be provided for once again.  Perhaps this is why the Rabbis of the Talmud taught, “In the world to come all prayers will cease but prayers of thanksgiving will continue” (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 9:7). They understood that gratitude is one of most precious obligations. We can never exhaust the opportunities to be grateful for the blessings of our lives.


D’rash – Kaplan’s Insight

"What the Psalmist had in mind when he asked: ‘Who may ascend unto the mount of the Lord?’ was not a sudden leap of faith, but the plodding climb of intelligence accompanied by deeds." – Mordecai M. Kaplan


Kaplan understood that gratitude is one of the most important and yet difficult emotions for us to experience and express in daily life. He recognized the human tendency to compare one’s lot in life with that of others and find fault with the ways our lives fall short of our own perceived ideal.  Gratitude, in contrast, lies in our ability to recognize the blessings in our lives while we have them— and even to continue to appreciate those same blessings when it seems they are gone.

Addressing the many for whom such feelings of thanksgiving do not come easily or often, Kaplan recommends “plodding” up the mountain of God’s gratitude and blessings by acting “as if” we are grateful until actual feelings of gratitude emerge within our hearts and souls. Every morning Kaplan himself recited this prayer from our Sages meant to remind us to stay aware of God’s gift of sustenance: “Blessed are You Adonai, Sovereign of the universe who provides me with all my needs.”

So, too, Kaplan taught, “God is the assumption that there is enough in the world to meet our needs but not to meet our greed for power and pleasure.”[i] For most of us, our basic needs are sufficiently satisfied in life as to merit expressions of gratitude. We must guard against the human tendency to belittle what we have as we yearn for some elusive attainment of what we don’t have.


D’rash – A Personal Reflection

Living Lives of Gratitude

Sometimes all of life seems like a test. Friendships drift away, loved ones die, we find ourselves fighting a serious illness or falling victim to corporate “downsizing” and either having our salaries cut or losing our jobs altogether. It’s remarkable how quickly even the most positive of people can find themselves haunted by questions of “Why me?” as their lives seem to undergo one blow after another.

One woman I counseled was wrestling with her anxieties over what the future held for her four-year-old son. He suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, on the highly functioning end of the autism scale. She was haunted daily by images of their future in which she and her husband were locked into caretaking a dependent adult. “How do I keep myself positive?” she asked. “How can I stay focused on the things I have and my son can do, instead of dwelling on what he lacks and can’t accomplish?”

Every one of us wrestles with personal challenges, yet others rarely see behind the image we choose to project into the world. There is a fable about a man who wandered from town to town across Eastern Europe wearing the world’s most magnificent coat. Everywhere he went, people invited him to eat and sleep in their homes just so they could bask in its splendid radiance. One thing, though, always seemed a bit odd: the man never took off his coat. No one in all of Europe had ever seen the coat anywhere except upon his body.

Once he stayed for dinner and overnight in the large home of an important merchant with many children. During the meal the children kept pointing to the magnificent coat, whispering to each other how they were dying to see it up close.

When the man was sleeping, the oldest son of the rich merchant snuck into the guest bedroom. Finding the coat hanging over a chair, he quickly grabbed it and ran out into the light of the family room to show it off to all his brothers and sisters. They gasped in shock!  Now that it was off the man’s body, everyone could see the entire lining was ripped to shreds, filthy with dust and sweat and dirt, and so disgusting no one wanted to get close to it at all.

Most of us are just like the man with the “magnificent” coat. We walk around with beautiful external coats and torn inner linings—pain, sorrows, losses, longings—that we never show the world. Likewise, when we view others we tend to only see the external beauty of their coats and so imagine everything must be perfect in their lives.

This Torah portion teaches us that life itself is a test of faith. The real spiritual challenge is for us to experience holiness and gratitude in our lives even when clouds dim the sun—even we aren’t exactly sure how when our next meal is coming. Rather than falling into the trap of making false comparisons with others, we are to cultivate the spiritual awareness that our lives are meaningful even when there is less than plenty. As it says in this parashah, “A human being does not live on bread alone, but…one may live on anything that Adonai decrees.”

By conditioning ourselves to be thankful every day, it is possible to experience God’s presence even when “God decrees” the most difficult circumstances in our lives.







Fri, August 23 2019 22 Av 5779