Parshat KiTavo: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8; Isaiah 60-1-22.
A friend of mine recently moved to Flatbush. He’s doing comedy in the city, but Manhattan apartment prices have pushed him deep into Brooklyn, so now he’s surrounded by yeshivahs and delis rather than upscale boutiques and … well, I guess still delis.
He grew up in a secular Jewish home, so it’s taking some time to get used to the religiosity of his new digs. But all in all, he’s embracing it and loving the fact that he gets to experience a Judaism so different from the one in which he grew up.
But there’s one small thing that really bothers him that he’s noticed when in conversing with his many new frum neighbors. In his own words … “I can’t stand this ‘Baruch HaShem’ business. Everything is ‘Baruch HaShem.’ How’s your day? ‘Baruch HaShem.’ How’re your studies going? ‘Baruch HaShem.’ How was the air conditioning on the subway? ‘Baruch HaShem.’ Are we thanking God for air conditioning now?”
His point is well taken. Baruch HaShem, literally translated as “blessed be God,” is a staple phrase of religious Judaism, especially in Brooklyn. It can be heard as often as the singing of birds or the honking of car horns. It is said in referring to air conditioning on the F train just like it’s said for myriad other moments and situations that might seem overzealous to some because it’s an acceptable response to almost any aspect of daily life. And this important nuance is exactly the reason why I love it.
This short and simple phrase is, in its essence, a mantra of mindful living, an intentional meditation of ceaseless gratitude. It’s a decision to see life in all of its complexity and to reply with thanks. In a world of chaos, gratitude is a prayer of order.
Our Torah portion this week celebrates that order. Here, the Israelites have wandered the desert for 40 years. They have seen miracles but also unspeakable tragedy. A full generation, with the exception of some paragons of righteousness have been wiped out, and the future lies before this new guard with some rather unpleasant certainties: that the Promised Land will be occupied, that war will be inevitable, that people will die and that autonomy will come with great challenges.
And yet, the intention, the prayer given to the Israelites during Moshe’s great speech is of fruit, of nourishment, of life.
The mitzvah of bikkurim (first fruits) asks our ancestors and, therefore, asks us not for a great act of submission or some statement of power and might. It asks us to take the first fruits of our trees and to say, “thank you.”
As we travel together to the awe and splendor of the High Holidays, it is crucial that we remember those small moments of gratitude because they are what keep our story alive.
We say thank you because we have come a long way. We have seen unspeakable horrors. We have traveled from the tethers of slavery to the orchards of this moment. We have fought amongst ourselves; we have gone astray; we have lost … Oh, God, have we lost …
But before us lies the fruit of potential waiting to be harvested and savored. We will savor it because tomorrow it could all spoil without warning. So we say thank you for it all. For the fruit of our lives, no matter how big or small, how seemingly trivial that fruit might be.
For our health, for our families, for our friends, for shelter and food, for peace and security, for each moment of our days, for the minutiae of our lives and, yes, for the air conditioning on the F train … Baruch HaShem. Blessed be God.
Rabbi Yonatan Dahlen is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.