Sunday, 26 September 2010

Recognising the Good

"One thing I asked of the Lord, that shall I seek: That I dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to behold the sweetness of the Lord, and to contemplate in His sanctuary. Indeed, He will hide me in His shelter (Sukkah) on the day of evil" Psalm 27

Currently the days of the biblical festival of Sukkos (tabernacles/shelters) is upon us. This annual harvest time Jewish festival commemorates the protection by God of the people of Israel during their sojourn in the wilderness after their departure from Egypt. The commandment to build and dwell in these temporary shelters (Leviticus 23:33-44) is fulfilled with much happiness and joviality as Jews bask in their relationship with God, renewed through the repentance and atonement of the High Holy days only recently observed. In addition it might interest some to know, that there is belief held by some that Jesus was born during this festival, which would be quite appropriate.

The Bible makes mention that this festival will be, at some future time, observed by all nations (Zechariah 14:16), and so clearly from its themes there is most likely some jewels of wisdom to be mined to the benefit of all mankind.

At this time of year, traditionally a time of harvest, people have paused to give thanks for all the blessings in their lives. Sadly the process of urbanisation that started long ago, has left millions of people divorced from a real relationship with the passage of the seasons. The constantly stocked supermarket shelves have made gratitude for a bountiful harvest, a very rare thing in deed. And our busy lives have robbed so many of the ability to stop and contemplate the blessings that flood their lives. I think this is a terrible shame, and might help account for the growth in the dissatisfaction that modern Britons often report feeling, and from which they often seek solace in therapies, shopping, or God forbid, self destructive activities. At least for those who observe the Sukkos festival or celebrate Harvest in their local church or chapel, there is an opportunity for thankful reflection. But how much better would it be, if we could all somehow incorporate this thankfulness into our daily lives throughout the year.

A bumper harvest however, is no guarantee to a heart overflowing with gratitude. In fact prosperity itself is almost always accompanied by a complacent attitude which gradually dims our hearts to the beneficences in our lives and from Whom they have come, and can eventually lead us to loose an awareness of the value of what we have. For this reason Rabbi Hirsch argued that God commanded His nation to "leave your sound and solid houses; dwell under the sparse ceiling of foliage, and learn its lesson: The Lord your God,.... sustained (your ancestors) in their booths and so revealed Himself as the Divine Providence, Who sustains all". It is of central importance for those who wish to cleave to their Maker, to realise that we rely on Him for everything, that it is His Countenance shining its grace upon us, that even allows our lungs to expand and be filled with the fresh, revitalising air.

In Hebrew gratitude is known as Hakaras HaTov, recognising the good. It is not just an emotion, but is something we must pursue. A key factor of gratitude is an awareness that we little deserve the blessings we have. That which we feel we deserve we rarely feel gratitude for. This is illustrated in the naming by Leah of her son Judah "She conceived again, and bore a son and declared, "This time let me gratefully praise the Lord", therefore she called his name Judah" Genesis 29:35. The name Judah, Yehudah in Hebrew, combines the root for thanksgiving with the name of God. Why was Leah so much more grateful for this birth than others ask the Rabbis? They explain that as a Prophetess she knew that Jacob would bear twelve children, she assumed that each of his four wives would bear three children each. When she had a fourth child, a child she had no expectation of being blessed with, she was overcome with gratitude. What we expect we rarely feel grateful for. I think that there can be no doubt that we live in an expectation culture. We feel that prosperity is our right, and very often we feel that it is someone else's duty (often the Government) to provide us with it. We hate waiting, we want instant service. We complain when a shirt we want is not in our size, without giving a second thought to how lucky we are that we even have money to buy a shirt. We march in petulant protest if governments seek to limit funding to something we feel we are entitled to. Personally I remember not too long ago, how I managed to ruin my lunch hour with self pity, simply because a sausage sandwich I was very much looking forward to was unavailable, this despite the blessings of a lovely sunny day that surrounded me, and the company of my beloved alongside me. So many of us have simply become spoiled.

To see what a lack of expectation engenders, just look at the reaction of adults and children in the worlds most deprived countries, when they receive even the smallest gift. The happiness, the smiles, the overwhelming gratitude.

Perhaps meditation on the Majesty of God, and the simply fact, that He did not have to create us, and that everything in life is His gift of love to us, could begin to open our hearts. Perhaps an undertaking to recite a blessing before enjoying a pleasure of this world and to recite grace after completing our meals could slowly begin to focus our attention on what we have and not on what we and often what others make us think we need.

Also let us not forget those timeless words of Jesus, who taught "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" Matthew 6:21. Prosperity is often a great obstacle to coming close to God, unless that prosperity is used in His service that is.

But what of those who have not had such a good harvest? What of those who today count the pennies worrying if they will have enough to make ends meet throughout this coming week? Can the themes of Sukkos speak to them? Rav Hirsch again; "And if your are poor..and in despair, move, I pray you, into the foliage-topped booth! Depart from under your sheltering roof and of your own accord live the poorer life and learn the lesson: God sustained your forefathers in the wilderness..that same God still lives and He is your god, and as the twinkling of the stars shines through the roof of foliage so does He wish His watchful eye embrace you in loving kindness, behold your tears hear your sighs and know your cares, and He will not forsake you as He did not forsake your fathers." Each and everyone of us is the recipient of oceans of kindness that was granted to the generations that proceeded us. Your God, who keeps watch over you now, kept watch over them then. Trust in His goodness. Our master Jesus put it the most beautiful way;

"Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!" Matthew 7:11

And here is an opportunity for deepening the relationships between people, to strengthen our communities. Those who are blessed with an abundance should see this abundance as given to them in trust by God, to assist those who have less than they need. Let us rally together to help those that might be affected by any potential government cuts. Let us support our neighbours. It is our Unitarian heritage, our Christian heritage, our Divinely mandated Human heritage. But when giving, always remember you are only giving what belongs to God as commanded by God. As King David sang:

"For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. "1 Chronicles 29:14

The more awareness of how fortunate the majority of us are in this great nation of ours, the greater gratitude we feel for these treasures in our midst, the happier we shall all be! And the happier we shall be, the more happiness we can transmit to others. Perhaps then we might move away from an entitlement culture and a culture of waste, were more is destroyed and left unused than can be in any way morally justified.

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