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Parashat Ekev

August 9, 2012

Gratitude to God, Source of Our Wealth

By Rabbi Len Levin

“Beware lest your heart grow haughty…and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth…” (Deuteronomy 8:14-18).

On first sight, the portion Ekev-like most of the first eleven and last six chapters of Deuteronomy-appears purely sermonic in character. A sermon offers ethical inspiration and goals that are commendable to strive for.  But we draw a vital distinction between ethics and law.  Ethics teaches what is commendable but to some degree optional; law lays down what is obligatory.  In classic Jewish parlance, ethics is in the realm of agada, law is coterminous with halakha.

But is the distinction so hard and fast?  The medieval work Sefer Ha-Hinnukh comprises a discussion of the 613 commandments of the Torah arranged by the weekly portions.  It finds eight commandments in Parashat Ekev.  Some of them-to love the stranger, to fear God, to serve God, to cleave to God-seem the epitome of ethical precepts.  Yet it gives them specific legal content.  For example, “serving God” translates into worshipping God through daily prayer; “cleaving to God” translates into associating with scholars of Torah (Sefer Ha-Hinnukh, §428-435).

In this vein, I suggest that we recognize an additional commandment articulated in the words I have cited above:  to dedicate one’s material wealth and talents to a larger vision of service to God through serving society and one’s fellow human beings.

The first eleven chapters of Deuteronomy deserve to be read sequentially in one sitting, as they comprise one of the most stirring and inspiring orations in world literature.  In broad strokes, Moses describes God’s beneficence to Israel as manifested through the providential history of the Exodus, the Sinaitic revelation, and the years in the wilderness.  Awareness of God’s beneficence should inspire us with gratitude.  And gratitude should be expressed in words and deeds.

Expression of gratitude in words is another one of the commandments that Sefer Ha-Hinnukh finds in this portion-namely, to recite grace after meals: “Eat, and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God for the good land that He has given you” (8:10). This should be a daily reinforcement of our sense of gratitude, as well as a concrete recognition that even when we have worked hard to achieve our prosperity, it would not be possible without the divine beneficence that has set in place the world and all the resources on which our lives and achievements depend.

But experiencing our prosperity as God’s gift should also motivate us to use our wealth in God’s service.  This connection will be drawn explicitly in next week’s portion (chapters 15-16), when we are bidden to deal generously with the poor who borrow, and with our bondmen when they are freed, and to share our bounty with all the needy at the times of the pilgrimage festivals.  There is a rhetorical ambivalence to verse 15:10:  “for on account of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.”  The plain sense is that one should be generous in anticipation of the prosperity with which God will reward one.  But there is also a suggestion that one should be generous out of gratitude, on account of the prosperity with which one has already been blessed.

The deeper message connects the social-ethical ideas of Deuteronomy with the social teaching of the prophets and the Jubilee law of Leviticus:  “But the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). “The earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness” (Psalm 24:1). God, master of all, has generously given us our very selves-body and soul, our talents and capabilities, and the resources of the world to be used in accord with God’s greater plan.  The word “property” is misleading because it implies that it belongs to us absolutely and outright. We are given all these gifts on trust, and conditionally-with the implied condition that we use them responsibly, in furtherance of God’s purposes.

Expressing gratitude daily is a good place to start.  Let us remind ourselves how blessed we are to be endowed with our everyday necessities, and with the potential to make a good life on the land that God has given us.  And let us then express our gratitude in deeds, by deploying the resources at our disposal to make the world a better place.


Rabbi Len Levin teaches philosophy at AJR and is the translator of Isaac Heinemann’s The Reasons for the Commandments in Jewish Thought (Academic Studies Press, 2008).