One of the central moral lessons of the Torah is the importance of being aware that everything we have, all the blessings in our lives, come from God. “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains,” says the Psalms. It is not such a difficult concept to grasp. We look around us, and we know that the world was here before us, and that we did not create it.
The purpose of so many of our mitzvot is to get us to acknowledge this fact. Our prayers are filled with descriptions of God as the Creator of the world. Saying blessings before eating food forces us to acknowledge God as the ultimate Creator before we enjoy the earth’s bounty. In this morning’s Torah portion, we read v’achalta v’savata uverachta – “when you eat and are satisfied, then you will bless the Lord for the good land that God has given you.” This is considered to be the origin of the mitzvah of reciting Birkat HaMazon, the Grace After Meals. While the idea that we should be grateful may seem pretty obvious, we humans still struggle to maintain a regular awareness of our own dependance on God’s Creation.
This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Ekev, warns us of an even more difficult form of gratitude to instill. Moses is speaking to the Israelites before they enter Israel. With God’s help, they will capture the Promised Land. He tells them that things are then going to go really well for them. Granted, they are going to work really hard for it, but all that hard work is going to pay off big time.
They will move in and build beautiful, secure homes. They will plant crops, which will produce more than enough food. Their flocks will multiply. They will accumulate gold and silver. It is going to be a good life.
Moses predicts what the Israelites will then say to themselves: “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” (Deuteronomy 8:17)
It is true. Those crops did not plant themselves. The sheep and goats did not milk each other. We did it. We worked hard, and now we deserve everything we have earned.
That is the moment when the risk of forgetting is greatest. When the Israelites say, “I deserve this.,” they will forget all that God has done for them to make it possible. They will forget how God freed them Egypt, protected and led them through a parched wilderness that was full of snakes and scorpions, and gave them water to drink and manna to eat.
“Remember,” Moses says, “that it is the Lord who gives you the power to get wealth.” (Deuteronomy 8:18)
From there, it is a slippery slope to idolatry. The people will abandon God and turn to other idols.
How does a person acheive the American Dream? Part of the mythos of our nation is that a person can succeed through hard work, no matter his or her religion, ethnicity, or background. Rather than relying upon the state, the autonomous individual must take charge of his or her own fate. For a person with the right drive and talent, there is nothing that cannot be achieved.
Let us set aside the question of whether this myth is true of twenty-first century America, because the idea of it is certainly still with us. The belief that anything is possible, and that a person’s success is determined exclusively by the work of his hands, is one of the distinguishing features of American culture.
In an Op-Ed entitled “What Does it Mean to be White” that recently appeared in the Seattle Times, Professor Robin DiAngelo, who herself is white, suggests that most of us are largely unaware of the extent to which race determines our fate. She points out that most of us develop our ideas about a subject by taking in information from the particular cultural waters in which we swim. It is extremely difficult to gain the perspectives of those who swim in different waters.
A 2012 poll by Gallup investigated attitudes about the role of African Americans in the United States criminal justice system. The question was asked: “Do you think the American justice system is biased against black people?” Note that the question is not to determine whether or not it is true, but rather what people believe about it. 68% of African Americans said yes, the criminal justice system is biased against them. 25% of whites claimed to believe that the criminal justice system is biased against blacks. That is a huge discrepancy that suggests that the cultural waters that black and white Americans swim in are quite different.
This week, we have seen this on display as huge outpourings of anger following the tragic shooting of African American teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri.
Professor DiAngelo points out that dictionary definitions of the term “racism” tend to focus on explicit attitudes of racial prejudice and the intentional actions that result from them. Most of us probably think of ourselves as good, reasonable, fair people who give everyone an equal chance. I am not a racist because I do not engage in actions that are disciminatory towards other people because of their race.
Social scientists define racism differently. It is a “multidimensional, highly adaptive system… that ensures an unequal distribution of resources among racial groups.”
In other words, regardless of my own personal attitudes and actions, I still might be unconsciously benefitting from a racist society.
I stand here as white, Jewish, and male. I consider myself to be good and fair. I do not intentionally discriminate against anyone. I speak up on behalf of tolerance and equality in conversations. I consider these to be important values when making voting decisions. Yet, as a white, Jewish, male living in America, I have benefitted from “an unequal distribution of resources based among racial groups” in astounding ways.
I was raised in a Jewish culture that treasures children, education, and strong family connections. I have always lived in a safe and supportive, two parent household. I was raised in a home that valued education, and that paid for that education by sending me to expensive Jewish day schools from third through eighth grade and sent me to an out of state university. I lived in neighborhoods and participated in social circles that were dominated by well-educated, middle class professionals who were mostly white. There was always healthy food on the table, and I was encouraged to be involved in organized sports. I always had access to high quality health care.
I have never encountered a barrier in my life that was placed there because of my race, religion, or gender.
When I put all of this together, I have to admit that have I benefitted tremendously from a life of privilege. The odds of my being successful in life were enormously high compared to someone who was not born with all of these opportunities. And I did not do a single thing to earn those advantages.
So who deserves the credit for my prosperity? I certainly worked hard for it. I spent a lot of years in college and rabbinical school. Is it not “the might of my own hands” that has brought me to this point in my life?
Call it blessing, or call it luck – I was born in the wealthiest country, at the most prosperous time in human history, to a family with white skin, into a religion and culture that enjoyed a degree of acceptance that is unprecedented in its history. What are the odds?
With regard to racism, Professor DiAngelo does not suggest that I have done anything wrong in benefitting from these opportunities. We did not create a system with embedded racism, but we have inherited it. She concludes, “We must take responsibility to see and challenge it both within and around us.”
She brings our attention to the same issue that Moses brings to the Israelites about to cross the Jordan River.
Moses understands human nature very well. He understands that it is difficult to maintain a perspective on the big picture. We tend to be wrapped up in our experiences. When things are going well, we tend to think that we deserve it. It is so easy to overlook the many advantages and opportunities, without which we would not have had the ability to work so hard and have that work pay off. But that is exactly what we are asked to do. “Remember that it is the Lord who gives you the power to get wealth.” We must be aware. We must be grateful. And we must work to create a society that offers more people an opportunity to succeed in life.