Against entitlement: why blessings can be dangerous

Deuteronomy’s teaching is clear: If you remember how much has been given to you, you will be receptive both to God’s command and to the needs of the downtrodden.

entitlement (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Deuteronomy portrays God as a gracious giver of gifts. It describes God as giving (n-t-n) Israel blessing (12:15); rain and crops (11:14-15); cattle and sheep (12:21); towns (13:12); settlements (16:5); sons and daughters (28:53); and the power to get wealth (8:18). All of this, of course, is in addition to God’s primary and most important gift: the land. Yet Deuteronomy worries that these gifts could easily become snares, that the people will feel entitled to God’s bounty instead of being grateful for it and that they will therefore come to forget the God who has given them so much. The first fruits ceremony prescribed in Parashat Ki Tavo is an attempt to keep gratitude from dissipating in the face of affluence and abundance.
The Israelite farmer is directed to bring his first fruits to the Temple (26:1-11). The very act of offering “some of every first fruit of the soil” (26:2) is a way of acknowledging God’s gift and Israel’s indebtedness, but the farmer is also instructed to recite a liturgical formula situating his bounty in the context of God’s long history of gracious involvement with the people:
“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 gave us hard labor. 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.” (26:5-10).
The formula does not simply express gratitude for the land; it rehearses the history of Israel, from enslavement to liberation and on to arrival and blessing in the land. The liturgy keeps the arc of Israel’s long journey firmly in view.
Biblical memory deliberately blurs the line between past and present. The ritual conflates the farmer’s ancestors, the contemporary community, and the individual farmer himself. The pilgrim starts out talking about his ancestors (“My father was a fugitive Aramean”) but soon shifts to the first person plural: (“The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us”). This subtly transforms the distant memory of the salvation of the farmer’s forebears into his own generation’s story. No matter how many generations ago the people were redeemed from slavery, they have only just been liberated. No matter how long they have dwelt in the land, they have only just arrived.
The formula goes further: “Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which you, O Lord, have given me.” Now, the experience of those who came before him becomes the pilgrim’s own life story. Not only has the people as a collective experienced the journey from slavery to liberation and bountiful blessedness; not only has the farmer’s own generation gone through that transformation, but so also has he personally. As the Passover Haggadah puts it, “In every generation a person must see herself as if she herself had left Egypt.” Because the farmer can still taste the sorrows of the past, he remains aware that none of this had to be, and thus of just how much he has been given.
Deuteronomy instructs the farmer to enjoy God’s bounty “together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst” (26:11). The Torah here makes a radical point, central to its social and theological vision: Genuine gratitude to God always leads to generosity and the desire to share our blessings with others. Moreover, the Torah reminds the pilgrim at the moment of thanksgiving that love of God must be manifest as love of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.
Deuteronomy’s teaching is clear: If you remember how much has been given to you, you will be receptive both to God’s command and to the needs of the downtrodden. But if you assume that you have single-handedly earned every last thing you have, you will forget both God and your neighbor. So Deuteronomy repeatedly bids us: Remember how much you have been given. Never forget to be grateful!
Adapted from ‘The Heart of Torah, Volume 2: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy’ by Shai Held, by permission of The Jewish Publication Society and the University of Nebraska Press; ©2017 by Shai Held