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Va'ethanan 5782 - Acknowledging Our Privilege

August 12, 2022 - 16 Av, 5782

In the book, Raising A+ Human Beings, Dr. Bruce Powell explains the idea of “privilege” using the wise words of Rabbi Edward Feinstein: 

During a Shabbat exposition of the week’s Torah portion, Rabbi Edward Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, made the following comment: “Some people who were born on third base believe that they had hit a triple.” In this brief and certainly humorous observation, Rabbi Feinstein drives home the point that no one can claim he or she achieves success without the foundations built before they arrived on Earth. Someone found the land to build the field; others graded the field and made it useful for baseball; others still provided the bases, the bats, the training, and, for that matter, created the game itself. All of the efforts were done by communities of visionary and hard-working people who wanted to ensure a great future for their children (24-25).

In other words, none of us achieved any of our accomplishments or good fortune alone. Recognizing that privilege allows us to better embrace gratitude, both for those present now and those who came before us.

In Parashat Vaethanan, Moshe shows the people Israel the privilege they have in entering a land filled with sustenance provided by both God and previous human residents:

And it will be that when Adonai your God brings you to the land that was promised to your ancestors - to Avraham, to Yitzhak, and to Ya’akov, to give you great and good cities that you did not build, and houses filled with all of that goodness that you did not fill, and dug-up wells that you did not dig, orchards and vineyards that you did not plant, and you will eat and you will be satisfied, guard yourself that you do not forget Adonai, who brought you out from the land of Egypt and from the house of servitude (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).

Moshe’s first warning asks our people primarily not to forget the God who guided them into their freedom. Beneath that primary request, Moshe also compels the people not to forget the ancestors who gained God’s initial favor. Oddly enough, Moshe further asks the people not to forget the farmers and builders of the nations Israelites are about to conquer, those who established the plenty that the Israelites will soon find at their fingertips. Regardless of their faith and military prowess, the Israelites will not gain their land and livelihoods by themselves; rather, their success relies on the previous efforts of ancestors, friends, enemies, and above all, God.

We, too, experience every-day privileges initially provided by others. Whether because of our gender, race, family status, health, or simply the land upon which we stand, we are indebted at every moment to ancestors, community, and God. Of course, there is nothing wrong with privilege by itself; being born or brought into privilege gives us access to a world of good. However, for that privilege to amount to anything for us and for our communities, we need to acknowledge and express gratitude for all those who guided us here.

By acknowledging our privilege, we can help bring that head start of health, wealth, education, and comfort to future generations. We can use the resources with which we were blessed along with the resources we have actively gained to ensure that our own children are not the only ones who inherit privilege. When we meet people whose choices and circumstances are different from those familiar to us, we remember that those choices and circumstances may have been influenced by what was available to them during childhood. With donations to organizations that provide opportunities to those with limited access, with compassion for each individual we meet, and with public policy towards equity and inclusion, we share the material and experiential wealth handed down to us. 

More simply, we show gratitude for our privilege by keeping our predecessors’ names alive. We tell stories about how the words and resources of our family brought us where we are today. We quote thinkers whose ideas we borrow, and we name partners who have helped us with each and every task. In every-day conversations, in school, and at work, we share our history, both the history that makes our ancestors look good and the history of which we are not proud. While we often have control over what we do with the hand we are dealt, we have never had control over that initial hand.

As each human being has been born into different circumstances for as long as we have existed, we each ultimately owe our privilege to our Creator. So far, this morning, we have recited dozens of Psalms and blessings to show our gratitude to God. Beyond Shabbat services, one of the easiest every-day ways to practice such gratitude is the pause we can take before and after we eat. Whether for bread, fruit, vegetables, or anything else, the few words of blessing we express in acknowledgement of the Divine also express acknowledgement of the farmers, truck drivers, factory workers, and grocery store clerks, who brought this food to our table. That practice of gratitude towards God gives us the vocabulary to thank those of the past and present, to remember that today, we live in cities we did not build alone, in houses we made homes only with the help of family, friends, and the infinite communities who put their hands together on our behalf. Shabbat Shalom.

Fri, December 2 2022 8 Kislev 5783