Imagine the farmer, recently arrived in Israel 3,000 years ago. After a season of plowing, sewing and reaping, he does as the Torah commands this week and brings the first of his harvest to a sacred assembly before God, offering these prescribed words of thanks in this week’s parasha:
“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 Adonai, the God of our fathers, and Adonai heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. Adonai freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God 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, Adonai, have given me.”
If any of us ever needs a lesson in gratitude and saying thank you, this is it. Gratitude begins with remembering that whatever we have, whatever our accomplishments, they are not really ours alone. We all are the descendants of people who survived terrible oppression that required great sacrifices so that we might someday have our own blessed lives. Those farmers bringing a portion of their first harvest after making it to the Promised Land were the result of surviving 400 years of servitude, 40 years of wandering and uncertainty in the harsh desert, and a hard-fought battle against fierce foes to conquer Canaan. Any Jew alive today is the beneficiary of that struggle and so many others. From the cruelty of the Roman empire, to the barbarism of the Spanish Inquisition and exile, to the rape and murder during pogroms, the slums of the Lower East Side in Manhattan, the horrors of the Holocaust, the daily fight for Israel to vanquish its military and political foes—none of us really stands entirely or even mostly on our own two feet, but so much more so on the bravery and devotion of those who came before us.
I am the son of a man who grew up on public assistance, left school every day at noon and went to work until dark, picked tin cans out of the garbage dump next door to his house to help his family, then started Leder Brothers Metal with my uncle at eighteen. In the beginning they had one old truck and some tools. A friend let them park the truck in his coal yard. To keep their tools safe they buried them each night under a pile of coal and dug them up each morning. They worked seven days a week outside in the Minnesota winter, trying to stay warm around a barrel of burning wood. They came home to their young wives and small children each night with frostbitten toes; fingernails smashed and purple from handling pipe. My uncle lost a finger, my cousin’s eyes were burned by battery acid, my dad suffered crippling back pain, and it was all better than what they grew up with. My dad and uncle were the sons of a young man escaping conscription in the Russian army who traveled by boat and by train to the tundra of Minnesota and a woman who left her Romanian family for a new land at the age of 16 never to return to her parents and two younger brothers. They existed sometimes on government butter, cornmeal, and beans.
Whenever I begin to feel overly proud of myself and my accomplishments I try to remember the lesson this week’s parasha comes to teach me; that I did not get to where I am all by myself and some humility and gratitude would be in order. My full stomach as a child, my warm bedroom in that Minnesota basement, my shul where I felt loved and valued, my world-class education in a private university of renown, the work ethic bestowed upon me by my father—all of my good fortune is the result of so many others who suffered and strove for decades, centuries and millennia before me. It is they, not I, who have given me the privileged life I lead. I suspect the same is true for those who came before you in your family. Let us remember this when we consider the fruits of our labor and how we might bring them forth with humility and gratitude as an offering to God and to those who suffer through no fault of their own; transforming our Jewish privilege into the privilege of being a Jew.
Love and Shabbat Shalom,