D’var Torah: Choosing to appreciate what we have

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 27 August 2021

We’re reaching the end of Deuteronomy. The point in the narrative in which Moses is – almost desperately – trying to persuade the people that they should follow his instruction after they enter the land without him.

His main strategy – most of our sidra this week – is carrot and stick. And then a bit more stick.
The blessings that will come with obedience; the litany of horrific curses that will follow if they turn from God.

But this isn’t the only message.
There’s another idea in our portion too – that to stick with God, to follow Torah, is just, well, obvious. The Israelites have been redeemed from Egypt, they’ve seen God’s power – they’ve experienced the manna, their clothes and shoes didn’t wear out, they’ve enjoyed divine protection – how could they do anything else?

And then, at the end of our portion this week, Moses says one of the most profound, most moving lines in Torah.
“v’lo natan Adonai lachem: lev la’da’at, v’einayim lirot, ‘v’oznaim lishmoa ad hayom hazeh”
“But to this day God has not granted to you a heart to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear”

We might hear this as an expression of despair. How could they not see what is in front of them; how can they not understand how good what they have really is?

But to me, this is not a moment of despair. Rather, it is one of those wonderful places in Torah where it reveals its understanding of human nature. This is not an expression of despair but of understanding – the understanding of Moses for his people, and of Torah for us.

Like the Israelites in our story, we too often cannot see that which is in front of us – cannot open our hearts, our eyes our ears to that which we experience; cannot be open to what is given to us, cannot appreciate what we have.

What we think we lack is often so much more present than that which we enjoy.
Indeed, this is human nature. One of our built in patterns, our cognitive biases, as human beings is that we experience loss more powerfully than we appreciate gain; what we lack but think we want carries far greater emotional impact that that which we do have.
Or as the Israelites would put it – Sure we’ve got this amazing miracle food – but we used to have, you know, cucumbers.

Like them, we also get used to things – we take them for granted – what is known as habituation. We come to take our homes for granted, our jobs, our communities, our families – those we have been lucky enough to find to love, and who love us. We get used to them, and cease to appreciate them – while looking beyond them to other things that seem shinier.
Of course the clothes have not got worn on our backs, the Israelites might have said. Now, God, what have you got?

Moses statement is a powerful acknowledgment of human nature.

But in one key respect, it is wrong.

It is not that God hasn’t granted us the capacity – appreciation is not something we need to be given. It is something we can choose, something we can build. We can work to open our hearts, our eyes, our ears. Through what nowadays we might call ‘gratitude as a practice’ – what our tradition calls hakarat hatov – recognising the good. Building appreciation into our daily lives.

This is a choice:
The choice to open our eyes to that which is good;
The choice to listen. Mainly, to listen to ourselves; to catch ourselves when we are falling into those patterns of ingratitude.
The choice to choose which question to ask first. To choose to first ask “what do I have and what did it take to get here, how do I honour it?” Rather than starting from that which we think we want but do not have.

To misquote Moses, “God has granted us a heart to understand, eyes to see, ears to hear”
The task is to choose to use them.