The valedictorian of my undergraduate class was a remarkable guy: the oldest of four children raised by a single mother, he dropped out of high school at age fifteen, to work and help support his siblings. He was a bright kid stuck in a cycle of intergenerational poverty. Then one day, quite luckily his uncle came into a modest financial windfall, and he told his then twenty-six-year-old nephew that he wanted him to take this money and get a formal education. Marking a first for his family, he started studying and he quickly had the took top grades in all his classes. By his final year, he was serving as the president of the student association and was looking at a very generous package to support his graduate research at an Ivy League institution in the US.
No one questioned why he was named valedictorian, but some were surprised at the subject of his graduation address: Be wary of the myth of the self-made man! He was quick to note all the times he benefited from the kindness, support and guidance others gave him. His uncle wanted to invest in his future, a university system that admitted mature students, the faculty who identified and nurtured his talents. He named those who helped to “make” him what he is, thanked them and dedicated this moment of honour to their collective efforts. “Remember that we have due to our own hard work and be certain that is never the full story!” His message was clear: see the ways in which others have helped us get here, cultivate gratitude, and ensure we lift-up others in turn.
He could have been quoting from this week’s parsha…except the staunch Québécois secularist that he was, he was not about to bring God into the conversation!
In our parsha this week, Eikev, we read:
“For Adonai your God is bringing you to a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill, a land of wheat and barley; of vines figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat without stint; where you will lack nothing; When you have eaten your fill, you give thanks to Adonai your God for the good portion of this earth that God has given to you.”
It is from this particular passage that the rabbis of the Talmud derive the mitzvah, the commandment, to recite Birkat HaMazon—the grace after meals. Our Talmudic sages state the purpose of these blessings is to help each of us take note that it is not only through our own labour that we enjoy the fruits of creation, but that we must also recognize the Creator as the source of our blessings. This is not to take away from the efforts we make as individuals, but rather to help us acknowledge—as my class valedictorian preached—that we are part of an ecosystem greater than ourselves, and we need to be grateful for the ways that enhance our lives, and the responsibility we have towards that greater whole.
The author of Deuteronomy implores us to notice all the places and spaces in our lives where we have reason to be thankful. In Birkat HaMazon, this is expanded even further as we express our gratitude not only to God but to the one who prepared the meal and the ones with whom we eat! We daily give thanks to God for the gift of life, but then we take the opportunity to lift up each specific blessing that has enriched us, and our fellow travellers on this journey through Creation.
As hard as it may be to believe, we are already entering the final days of Summer. As we transition into the lead-up to our Days of Awe, it is important to note that gratitude and appreciation are not just prayerful themes but guiding principles for a life lived to its fullest potential.