Everywhere I look these days, I see signs of the hard times we are living through: closed storefronts and long lines at social service agencies. Here in southern Florida, the "For Sale" signs sprout on lawns like mushrooms. And here is another sign of the recession: gratitude.
I have never heard so many people talk about their low-paying, long-hour jobs with so much gratitude. "Thank God I even have a job," is a sentence I hear from congregants week after week. People who are having a tough time holding onto their houses, or even just putting food on the table, express a sense of thankfulness that they are not among the hungry and homeless.
Paradoxically, we tend to feel gratitude more keenly when we have less. This week's Torah portion (Ki Tavo) seems to have a keen awareness of that tendency of the human heart.
The parashah includes a description of a ritual that the Israelites are told to perform after they enter the land of Israel. At harvest time, the time of plenty, they are to take a basket of their first fruits to the Temple, present it to the priest, and make this declaration:
My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt in small numbers and lived there and became a great and numerous nation. The Egyptians treated us badly and oppressed us. They forced hard labor on us. We cried out to Adonai, the God of our ancestors, and Adonai heard our voice and saw our oppression, our toil, and our distress. Adonai took us out from Egypt with a mighty hand, an outstretched arm and awesome power, and with signs and wonders. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Now—behold!—I have brought the first fruits of the land which You, Adonai, have given me! (Deuteronomy 26:5-10)
The ritual is self-explanatory. The person who enjoys the prosperity of the land must bring a token of the riches to the priest and tell the story of how the nation became so fortunate. We remember that it was not always this way—we once were slaves with nothing, until God gave us everything. The enthusiasm of the closing verse (hinei - behold!) says it all: I have been privileged to be the recipient of a miracle not of my making.
The Torah seems to understand that it is people who enjoy plenty who are most in need of a prompt to feel gratitude. It is only after the fat and happy Israelites, at the beginning of their harvest, recall the story of past oppression that they are ready to experience gratitude for all they have.
The same, of course, is true for us. We, too, have difficulty remembering to be grateful in times of plenty. It is the tough times that make it easier to be thankful for what we have.
I won't say that I am grateful for a recession that has caused so much hardship for so many people. However, I will acknowledge that there is a silver lining to these days of high unemployment and tight budgets. We who have enough are reminded daily that, no matter what we have, there is reason to be thankful. We have been blessed with enough—perhaps not a feast—but enough.