Rabbi’s Corner

At new year, have gratitude for God’s latitude

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

We are about to begin the yearly journey of the Jewish fall holidays, examining the choices we continually make and the way our choices have worked out for us in the past year. The last month of the Jewish year, Elul, is bracketed by Torah portions from Deuteronomy that are famously about choice. At the beginning of Re’ei (See), Moses says to us, the people of Israel,

“See, I give you today a blessing and a curse.

The blessing, if you listen to the mitzvot of your God that I command you today.

And the curse if you don’t obey or listen.”

On the surface, this seems like a simple restatement of the central message that is repeated all through Deuteronomy: Do mitzvot, (commanded acts), get goodies; commit aveirot (sins), and get punished. If you do good, you will be blessed; if you do evil, you will be cursed. It is this famed Deuteronomic covenant that lies at the heart of the Torah’s understanding of ethics, the quid pro quo of actions and consequences.

But commentator Nechama Liebowitz points out that in Re’ei, these are not really two parallel “ifs”, “blessing if you listen, curse if you do not,” though most translations hide that fact. The Torah uses two different Hebrew words: “et habracha asher tishm’u”, “v’haklalla im-lo tishm’u”. That is, the blessing, because you listen, and the curse, if you do not.

The great Biblical commentator Rashi comments that, “The curse is written in the conditional, and the blessing in the declarative.” That is, the blessing of God is definite, while the curse is only a possibility. You will be blessed when you follow God’s commandments; you might be cursed if you violate them.

This means that God actually gives us a line of credit, a mitzvah equity loan if you will, and we can borrow blessing on the speculation that we will likely do mitzvot. It seems like a good deal for us, but not necessarily a good one for God. God gives us a blessing cushion, a kind of allowance we get to use up, in the hope that we will pay it back — not forward — through our actions. (We can assume that this blessing borrowing will not cause a sub-prime blessing crisis in the financial markets on high …)

This is a comforting thought; we get blessings on the hope that we will do mitzvot. God rewards us and then hopes — prays? — that we act well. I rather like this image of God. It says that God wants us to succeed, and cares about us enough to loan us some goodness in advance to help our cause. Our sole responsibility is to learn to be good, to continue to choose the right course so that we will merit the blessings we already have received.

As we approach the season of teshuvah, the time of return, the Torah urges us to hope that God will always give us the benefit of the doubt. God is, in fact, extending us credit in advance to help us with our return to our best selves. All we must do is take advantage of the opportunity.

One lesson of this blessing loan is that we ought to feel gratitude for the latitude that God gives us. If we remember to feel grateful for the gifts we have received from God, then we’ll have the opportunity to act from those feelings of thanksgiving for what we have. All God asks is for us to return to following the ethical ways that the mitzvot outline for us, to seek to live as well as we possibly can. When we do that, we are, at least theoretically, simply repaying the many goodnesses we have already received.

We Jews specialize in kvetching (complaining), rather than kvelling (rejoicing). Here the Torah teaches us to begin this introspection with a note of gratitude instead of complaint. When we know that all we have comes from God, we may remember to work to perfect our ability to respond well to our lives. Then we can seek to make the best choices we can every day.

May it be our choice to embrace gratitude, and so find holiness and morality in the coming days of return. As the final Torah portion of Elul reminds us, “Choose life!” which means choosing ethical action and gratitude.

If we can manage that, then each of our lives may indeed be filled with the blessings that God will continue to freely give in the year 5776.

An early L’Shana Tovah Tikateivu v’Teichateimu — may you be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a good year of gratitude.

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon is senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El and host of “The Too Jewish Radio Show with Rabbi Sam Cohon and Friends.”