August 4, 2023
I write to you this week from Aspen, Colorado, where I am visiting dear friends and having my first experience of the incredible Rocky Mountain landscape. I’ve included a few of my photographs from the trip here, including two taken on a train from Denver to Glenwood Springs, CO. This trip has been “awesome” in the literal sense of the word, with one “wow moment” after another. I am filled with awe as I witness the montage of colors here: the shades of deep greens and browns, bright blue sky and red rock, explosions of wildflowers both in lovingly cultivated gardens, and springing up amidst rock along mountain trails. The scale and grandeur of this part of the country is unfamiliar, and something I feel so blessed to experience. My eyes are opened in a new way, and the colors and shapes of this place dance under my eyelids when I am drifting off to sleep. On a hike yesterday along the Rio Grande, I thought of one of the morning blessings of gratitude, “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam Pokeach Ivrim” – Blessed are you, God, who opens the eyes of the blind. Our tradition asks of us to be in touch with that sense of gratitude each morning upon waking, such that each time we wake up it is as miraculous as a blind person suddenly given the gift of sight.
Another blessing coming to mind constantly is the excerpt from Psalm 92 that we often sing at Friday night services. I believe this psalm was specifically designated as a “Shir l’yom ha Shabbat” – a psalm for the day of Shabbat – because when we slow down and step back from the busyness of our lives, we can perhaps receive the gift of sight anew: we can see the world through eyes of wonder. When we sing this line from the psalm – “Ma gadlu maasecha Adonai, me’od amku machshevotecha – How amazing is Your creation, God, your thoughts are very deep” – we are expressing both deep humility and boundless gratitude for this creation of which we are a part. “Radical amazement,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, is the task and the goal of the spiritual life. He wrote: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, gives us Moses’ final address to the Israelites, recalling the wrongdoings of the first generation of the people, who time and again made the mistake of forgetting their connection to God. In other words, they lost their sense of faith and trust because they forgot that they are bound together in relationship to creation, to their history, and to God, their partner in relationship and the source of creation itself; they forgot that they are a part of and in relationship to something much greater than themselves, something worthy of awe and wonder. I would summarize the essence of Moses’ address to the people in this parashah this way: when you have the abundant blessings of the promised land, and the rootedness after the many years of wandering, do not forget to be in awe and to be grateful. Just as it was easy to forget or deny your connection and responsibility to each other and to God when you were experiencing the profound challenges of this wilderness journey, so too it will be all too easy to forget when you are, at long last, in the land promised to your ancestors, a land “flowing with milk and honey.”
The mitzvot (commandments) reiterated in this parashah and throughout the book of Deuteronomy, whether to “Befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19) or to set aside Shabbat as a day of rest, are all meant to remind us of our essential connection to this incredible creation and to its source; to remind us that we are not here of and for ourselves, but we are part of a sacred symphony of profound connection and responsibility. The Israelites are told again and again that if they take care not to forget their experiences as a people – both the incredible challenges and the blessings they received along the way, then they will receive continued blessing. One could summarize the task of our people thus: Whether we are experiencing abundance or lack, confidence or doubt, beauty or terror – we must always take care to remember our connection to all that is – to the land and its bounty and beauty; to every human being, each created in the divine image; to all that we have experienced and to the blessings we have been given.
Looking at the world through eyes of wonder – taking nothing for granted- means that we will live a life of gratitude. When we are awestruck and grateful, even for something as seemingly mundane as opening our eyes in the morning, we will remember that our purpose is to serve – to give back to this incredible creation of which we are a part. When we live in that way, with wonder and awe, gratitude and purpose, we are truly blessed.
As it happens, the two books I brought with me on my trip are also focusing my mind and heart on awe and on blessing. One is Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life by Dacher Keltner. The other is To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings by the Irish poet John O’Donohue (1956-2008). I will leave you with these words from John O’Donohue: “”We come into the world as strangers who all at once become heirs to a harvest of memory, spirit and dream that has long preceded us and will now enfold, nourish, and sustain us. The gift of the world is our first blessing…It would be infinitely lonely to live in a world without blessing. The word blessing evokes a sense of warmth and protection; it suggests that no life is alone or unreachable. Each life is clothed in a raiment of spirit that secretly links it to everything else…”
In our Torah portion this week, Moses enjoins the people: “And now, O Israel, what does your God demand of you? Only this: to revere your God to walk only in divine paths, to love and to serve your God with all your heart and soul.” (Deuteronomy 10:12) Ultimately, our fulfillment of this eternal obligation depends on remembering our connection to this world pulsing with life, in all of its complexity and beauty; on remembering that we are bound together in sacred relationship to all that lives and to the Source of Life. This Shabbat and beyond, as we turn toward a new year and renewed dedication to a life of meaning, connection, and purpose, may we cultivate the space within to open our eyes to the blessings around us, and to be a blessing to others out of our deep gratitude for this incredible gift of life.
Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman