Be Grateful * Be Humble * Pay it Forward

In this second week of consolation following Tisha B’Av, Parashat Eikev calls us toward a posture of gratitude and humility... and behavior of "paying it forward."

In this second week of consolation following Tisha B’Av, Parashat Eikev calls us toward a posture of gratitude and humility... and behavior of "paying it forward."

Flashing ahead from the wilderness to a future time when the Israelites will reside in the “good land” (that is, a land of streams and springs, wheat and barley, vines, figs, pomegranates, olive trees, and date honey!), Moses instructs the people that it will be their responsibility to give thanks afterthey've eaten their fill. This principle gives rise to our practice of reciting birkat hamazon (blessings after each meal), and is also generalized into a posture of gratitude that must remain in place even once our needs have been met.

The book of Deuteronomy goes on to warn of the possibility that we might gain wealth and power and then say to ourselves: “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me” (this sounds incredibly contemporary, but is the actual wording of Deut. 8:18).  This is, it seems, a human tendency: to achieve power or wealth, and then to decide that the level of success we have arrived at is something we have "earned" through our own actions and merit. Eikev cautions against this tendency in the strongest possible of terms, and then commands in Deut. 8:19: "V’zacharta et Adonai elohecha ki hu ha-notein l’cha koach la’asot chayil," "Rather, remember that it is Adonai your God who has given you “koach la’asot chayil."** [**That last phrase is interpreted two different ways by various commentators: as “the power to get wealth” (which makes sense in the context of the chapter) or “the power to act with great strength” (as in "eshet chayil").] In either interpretation, the meaning is clear: don't give yourself too much credit; acknowledge God; be humble!

Steeped as we all are right now in conversations about our American society and system racism, this year it strikes me that Parashat Eikev is speaking directly to us about societal issues of privilege. If -- the Torah seems to be saying -- you have everything you need in this moment (#blessed?!), it is dangerous to think that this is because you have earned it somehow. Instead, you must acknowledge that it is God (or, if you prefer an alternate vocabulary, try "circumstances beyond our individual control") that is ultimately responsible for your success.

We know that the American Jewish community in general, and the Kavana community in particular, has a relatively high degree of wealth, influence, and privilege. From internal community surveys, we've learned that Kavana folks are very highly educated and relatively well-off compared to the general population even here in Seattle. That's not to say that no one in our community is struggling -- clearly, many of us are in this moment, including economically and with employment issues -- and yet, taken as a whole and compared to other groups, we are still extraordinarily fortunate. Most of us have the basics covered and then some... and yes (as Deuteronomy says) the ability to eat until we are fully sated! If we were to argue that we have achieved all this only because of our own merit, the Torah would put us in our place and argue, on the contrary, that we are missing the bigger picture!

Armed with this deep truth -- that we have more than we need not because of our own merit but because we are part of a privileged group -- we become obligated to pay attention to those around us who are not similarly privileged. Indeed, in Parashat Eikev, the commandments to remember these truths resolve into another famous command in the last section of the Torah portion (Deuteronomy 10:19): "V’ahavtem et ha-ger, ki geirim heyitem b’eretz mitzrayim.," "You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

That is the progression of this Torah portion:

1. Be grateful.
2. Be humble / acknowledge your privilege.
3. Pay it forward.

The formula sounds simple; living it out is anything but. However, we do have opportunities to practice, and this time period -- as we move towards the High Holidays and prepare to begin a new cycle together -- is the perfect time to do so. This week, I want to highlight a couple of opportunities:

First, Hava Sprung -- a college student who grew up in the Kavana community -- is putting on a second Queen Anne Community Kids' Market for Racial Justice this coming Sunday, August 9th, at Little Howe Park from 1-4pm. She writes: "The first market was a huge success, and I’m hoping that this one will be even better!" Here's a link to the Facebook event link, and here is the sign-up link for kids who want to sell crafts or goodies at the market. (More info on this event can be found at the bottom of the newsletter.)

Second, I want to draw everyone's attention to the Bike Drive and Bike-a-Thon that are being organized by Kavana partners Matt Offenbacher and Ingrid Elliott. We'll be collecting bikes and bike parts this month, and donating them through Bike Works to give away to youth from low-income families. What I love most about this event is that it is at once about environmental solutions, social justice, healthy living, and community-building. Below, please find both the beautiful poster Matt created and you can also click here for more info... we encourage Kavana community members to get involved, whether that means dropping off used bikes/bike parts on August 23rd, creating your own Bike-A-Thon fundraiser, or simply donating funds (instructions for all of these can be found at the link above). All of these actions help to promote the idea that biking -- a reliable, zero-emission, pandemic-safe mode of transportation -- shouldn’t be available only to those of us with relative privilege. Sharing our bountiful resources -- our bikes, our dollars, and our power to effect change -- is the best way we can pay it forward.

With gratitude and humility, and a readiness to roll,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum