Gratitude: Forgetting and Remembering (Eikev)

By Reb David

As we enter the weeks leading to Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe, this week’s Torah portion (Eikev) reminds us about gratitude and warns us about hubris. Why this reminder, this warning, and this moment for both? The reminder is perhaps the clearest words in all of Torah (Deut. 8:12-19):

When you have eaten your fill, and built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks multiplied, and your silver and gold increased, and everything you own prospered – beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget YHVH your God, who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness … who brought forth water for you … who fed you in the wilderness … [lest] you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand won this wealth for me.’

Gathering manna

When all goes well, Torah reminds us, we shouldn’t be quick to attribute our good fortune only to ourselves. Often we work hard, but we also stand on wide shoulders. Opportunities come to us from others, and we benefit from labors we did not do. Whether we inherit wealth, or receive an education for which others paid, or benefit from sacrifices by elders, or take refuge in a social safety net that catches us when we fall – we all have much for which to be grateful. When things go well, often we forget how much of those things come from beyond ourselves.

This amnesia is natural: we’re pre-programmed for it. Cognitive psychologists call it the fundamental attribution error, by which we over-attribute life to internals (e.g. effort, choices and personality) over externals (e.g. circumstances). Often life is both, but we forget. If someone behaves in a way we find mean, we’re fast to say that (s)he is mean (an internal attribution); we’re more slow to ask, “Is there an outside problem to which (s)he is reacting?” (an external attribution). If we feel healthy, wealthy and wise, we’re fast to say that we earned it; we’re more slow to ask, “What outside factors beyond my control helped bring me here? For what externals beyond myself do I owe a debt of gratitude?”

That’s the warning of this week’s Torah portion. When we don’t ask these questions – when we attribute what we have only to ourselves – we take ourselves out of the world. When we forget that what we have also depends on others, we turn away from others – away from history, community and God. Torah continues (Deut. 8:20-22):

Remember that it is YHVH your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that God made on oath with your ancestors, as is still the case. If you forget YHVH your God and follow other gods to serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish.

When we forget, we cut ourselves off – and in time we’ll feel cut off. When we think, feel and act as if we’re self-contained rather than dependent on a flow far greater than ourselves, the inner part of us that craves connection suffers. In a spiritual sense, this forgetful hubris can cause us to wither inside.

When we forget (as we all do), we need reminders. This week’s Torah reminder comes now for two reasons. The first reason is that we’re on the runway for Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe. These are our weeks of teshuvah, our time of spiritual return. This week’s reminder is a call to remember and return. The second reason is that in the Northern Hemisphere, the month of August is the peak of the growing season: our harvest is nearly ready, our bounty appears right before our eyes, and now is the time to remember where it truly comes from.

As with Judaism’s ancient agriculture roots, so with modern spiritual life. Now’s the time to see, remember and give thanks. May the lushness of summer and every good thing in our lives remind us to reach beyond ourselves in gratitude.

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