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Words to Live By

Then you shall declare before the LORD your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor.” — Deuteronomy 26:5–6 

The Torah portion for this week is Ki Tavo, which means “when you have entered,” from Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8, and the Haftorah is from Isaiah 60:1–22.

John F. Kennedy once said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” Gratitude is not just what we say; it’s a way of life.

This week’s Torah portion opens with a commandment of gratitude. Once the children of Israel were settled in the land given to them by God, they were to take their first fruits and bring them as an offering. (See Chapter 26, verses 2–11.) Through this action, the Israelites would demonstrate their deep gratitude and remember that the wonderful land where they now lived was a generous gift from God.

The bringing of the first fruits was an exercise in appreciation, so it’s a bit puzzling as to why the Israelites said as they brought them: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt . . . the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor.”

What? They thanked God by recounting the horrible slavery of Egypt? Not only that but the Hebrew translation of the beginning of the verse reads, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father . . .” This is a reference to Laban who made life very difficult for Jacob, especially when he switched Rachel for Leah on Jacob’s wedding day. (See Genesis, Chapter 29, verses 14–30.) For this we are giving thanks?

Yes.

Consider this: Had Laban never switched Leah and Rachel, then Jacob would have married Rachel first. If that would have happened, then Joseph would have been the oldest brother of the tribes. If Joseph had been the oldest, the other brothers wouldn’t have had a problem with Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph. The brothers never would have sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt. That would have meant that no one would have been there to care for Jacob and his entire family during the famine in Canaan. The selling of Joseph ended up a blessing.

The slavery in Egypt ended up to be a blessing, too. Their centuries-long ordeal and eventual release from slavery allowed the children of Israel to bond together as a nation. It was through the Exodus that they became God’s chosen people. The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat hatov, which means recognizing the good. That means what is good is not always obvious. You need to search for it, find it, and recognize it. Everything can lead to good and, as God promises, it’s all for the best.

These aren’t just words to read; they are words to live by.

 

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President

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September 5, 2017
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