Parashah Ponderings

Not feeling grateful? Fake it ’til you make it.

Parashat Ki Tavo / פרשת כי־תבוא
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

This week’s Torah reading offers an important lesson on gratitude: put simply, “fake it ‘til you make it.” Even when we are not feeling grateful, sometimes we should act as if we are. We should say “thank you” as if we mean it, even if we don’t. After a while of “faking it,” we start to look at the world differently, and the gratitude starts to become real. It’s amazing how much we can deal with, even overcome, if we just remember to be grateful. It’s no accident that we begin each day say “Modeh ani lefanecha — I give thanks to you, Holy One.”

Speaking to the Israelites, Moses instructs them that, upon entering the Land of Israel, they are to bring some of the first fruits of their soil in baskets to the Levites at a place of God’s choosing. Once they have set their offerings on the ground in front of the altar, they are to recite these words, which have become familiar to us through the Passover haggadah:

My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me. (Deut. 26:6-10)

Through this ritual, the Israelites will express their gratitude to God for having brought them out of bondage to a place of safety in their own land. The words they will recite focus succinctly on the grace that God had bestowed upon them. With this gesture of thanksgiving, Israel will go on to thrive in the Holy Land. Given Israel’s history of complaining about hardships throughout during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, it is refreshing to read this narrative that focuses solely on Israel’s gratitude for the loving kindness that God has bestowed upon her.

Let’s face it, though: We don’t get the impression from the Torah that showing appreciation comes naturally to the Israelites. Indeed, before we credit the Israelites with taking on an attitude of gratitude, we should note that it’s Moses who prescribes the exact words they are to say. Moses doesn’t assume that his people will naturally set aside their troubles and wax sincerely in gratitude before God. He provides the script that he hopes will lead to the attitude adjustment that God desires of them. He is teaching them to fake it until they make it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had such a script in hand at times when we’re inclined to rant on about all our suffering, to run through a litany of all that we lack? Sure, we’re raised to say “please” and “thank you,” but we aren’t always given the tools to see the blessings in our lives in those dark moments when we feel our lives lack everything except misery.

Every child at one time or another has melted down, proclaiming that they have the worst life of anyone in the world. After listening to what is upsetting them, affirming their feelings and then helping them put their misery in perspective, they eventually come to see that life is not nearly as bad as they imagined. With any luck, we help bring them to a place where they can actually feel grateful for all they have. We need not require them to lay a tenth of all their toys or a basket of fruit before the rabbi. It’s enough for them to acknowledge their privilege without introducing a ritual from the bible.

As the New Year approaches and we take stock of our lives, we should know that is alright to express our regrets and setbacks from the previous year. Sometimes, we too, feel like our lives are a mess, that we’ve really messed up or that the odds are stacked against us.

But the message this week is that we need to keep a sense of perspective. We need to balance the negative with the good. Should we be stuck in a dark place, unable to express gratitude for our bounty, we should seek out someone like Moses who can hand us a rosier script that is as true as the script we find coming out of our mouths. Sometimes we, like our ancestors, just need to be reminded how good life is in order to carry on and thrive in our own lands. Even then, we might need to fake it for a while. Eventually, we will make it to a place where we truly do feel grateful.

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