D’var Torah on Parashat Vayelech (Shabbat Shuvah)
Rabbi Martha Bergadine
The United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong
This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance, coming as it does between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The haftarah, which gives this Shabbat its name, is drawn from the prophets Hosea, Micah, and Joel. It calls for us to return (shuv) to God and promises comfort and consolation, forgiveness and healing for those who do.
There are “turnings” in this week’s Torah portion, Vayelech, but they are not the haftarah’s “re-turnings” which promise forgiveness. Instead both are “turnings away” that stem from ingratitude. When gratitude is lost in its place is found arrogance, entitlement, and a jaded view of the world that separates us from God.
The first “turning away” comes when God warns Moses that after entering the Promised Land, “. . . This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst . . . They will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them.” (Deut. 31: 16). It may be a bit cliché to consider what our “alien gods” are today, and yet the question still rings true. How often have we set success, wealth, approval, or renown up as our “alien gods” and gone astray chasing after them?
The Hasidic master, Shneur Zalman of Liady, saw this type of idolatry, not as a denial of God, but rather as insubordination. When we make our pursuit of achievements our ultimate concern we place them between ourselves and God. We try to fence off a small area and call it our own, rather than acknowledging how God encompasses all aspects of our lives. We fail to be grateful for the gifts we have been given -- intelligence, talent, the support of others, and instead root ourselves in prideful independence.
The Torah portion also identifies another dangerous “turning” point when God warns, “When I bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey . . . and they eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods and serve them, spurning Me and breaking My covenant.” (Deut. 31:20). It is exactly when things are good, when everyone has a full belly, that the people will turn away. They do this not out of anger or pride but simply out of complacency and forgetfulness. For us too it is easy to fall into lazy ingratitude and take the blessings that surround us for granted.
The story is told that Rabbi Yisrael Salanter once noticed a restaurant was charging an exorbitant price for a cup of coffee. He approached the owner and asked why the coffee was so expensive when it was really nothing more than a few coffee beans and some hot water. The owner told him that while he could have coffee in his own home for pennies, the restaurant provided attentive waiters, fine china, and exquisite surroundings, hence the high price.
Rabbi Salanter’s face then lit up as he exclaimed: "Oh, thank you very much! I now understand the blessing of Shehakol -- 'All was created by His word' -- which we recite before drinking water. You see, until now, when I recited this blessing, I had in mind only that I am thanking the Creator for the water that He created. Now I understand the blessing much better. 'All' includes not merely the water, but also the fresh air that we breathe while drinking the water, the beautiful world around us, the music of the birds that entertain us and exalt our spirits, each with its different voice, the charming flowers with their splendid colors and marvelous hues, the fresh breeze -- for all this we have to thank God when drinking our water!"
Even the most mundane elements of our lives, a cup of coffee or a glass of water, are encompassed by blessings for which we should be grateful.
These two “turnings away” in the Torah portion are really flip sides of the same coin. On one side, our lack of gratitude leads us to actively pursue false gods, claiming our achievements are all our own. On the other side, our jaded eyes and forgetfulness, allow us to grow complacent and entitled. In both cases, we separate ourselves from God.
The very name of our parasha, Vayelech – which means “and he went” -- encourages us to go forward. Taking stock of all that we are grateful for, truly counting our blessings, seeing all of Gods gift to us -- that is the first step to gratitude.
Gratitude opens the heart. May we go forward with open hearts so that this Shabbat Shuvah, we begin to turn back to our better selves and God.