This week's portion reminds us that thanking God for the food and assets we have acknowledges our limitations of power at times when we could get carried away by inflated ideas of our own worth.
In Ekev, God is going to take the Israelites into a good land that is well-watered and fertile. The Israelites will lack nothing (Deuteronomy 7-9). But we are admonished to remember that once we have plenty to eat and we live in fine houses and own considerable assets, we are not to forget God.
We are not to say: “ ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth. … If you forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve them … I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish” (Deuteronomy 8:17-19).
America is a well-watered and fertile land. Our primary environment of potential abundance is a basic condition of American life. However, a vital distinction separates mere potential abundance from actual abundance. Potential abundance is the supply of natural resources. Actual abundance is the availability of goods ready for use.
In America, potential abundance has been translated into an unexampled standard of living by means of a secondary environment — technology and economic organization, which are the direct results of human effort. Human resourcefulness in developing natural resources into usable goods can lead us to say: “Our own power and the might of our own hand won this wealth for us.”
The purpose of offering a prayer thanking God for bringing forth bread from the earth is to acknowledge our own limitations of power at the moment when we could get carried away by inflated ideas of our own worth. We are only partners with God in the crops we raise. It’s essential for human beings to be aware of our place in the world at the moment we are feeling conceited with ideas of omnipotence.
Our secondary environment is the work of human ingenuity, but we had no hand at all in the creation of our primary environment — sunlight, rain and rivers, soil, plants.
Mankind does not have a complete and perfect knowledge of everything. We work, we build. Yet, we should always keep in mind that what is here today could be gone tomorrow. A farmer could select a fertile field, plant the right seeds, use the best fertilizers. But who knows what might happen tomorrow? Insects, disease, brush fire or drought could erase human effort. The things we build are not the solid, everlasting structures we imagine them to be.
Because our lack of ultimate control makes us feel insecure, we are prone to put our faith in the wrong things. If we forget God and put our faith in the American standard of living, we might believe that the people of this nation deserve all the good things in life while people of underdeveloped countries deserve their poor lot.
We could also make a harmful distinction between people. If we believe that material success is the sign of personal worth, then the person who makes big money is good and the person who struggles to make ends meet is a failure.
To make the American standard of living the god of our existence is nothing short of idolatry. If the meaning of our lives is confined to the acquisition of material things, then we are bowing down to some god other than the God of the Torah.
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is the chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home. Email him at: [email protected]