Debts are a part of life. Some debts are financial — student loans, mortgages, credit cards; we pay these with cash. Other debts are intangible but no less real — what we owe to parents, teachers, friends, and colleagues who have helped us along the way. These debts we settle by choosing to live good lives and “paying it forward.”
One theme of parshat Ekev is a warning against ingratitude. Moses tells the people that God is bringing them into a good and fruitful land where they will lack nothing; and then he cautions:
“Take care lest you forget the Lord your God and fail to keep His commandments, His rules, and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God…and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’”
The Torah warns us to avoid the sin of arrogance; we must not forget that it is God who is the ultimate source of all the good things we have. We are in debt, both to God and to other people. And an understanding of our indebtedness leads inexorably to a “theology of wealth.”
The Torah says, “Remember it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case.” Of course, successful people work hard, but no one achieves success without others, both human and divine. In other words, no individual is the sole owner of what he or she has. And what could be uglier than refusing to acknowledge and show gratitude for what others have given us.
This doesn’t mean there is something wrong or unsavory about being successful or wealthy. However, it does mean that everyone has a responsibility to give something back.
The rabbis teach us that to use anything from the world without reciting a brachah, a blessing expressing gratitude, is stealing from God. Similarly, claiming your accomplishments, wealth, or success as wholly your own without acknowledging the role of God and other people — parents, spouses, teachers, mentors, colleagues — without returning something, is also a form of theft.
Every person has debts. The Talmud teaches that even a person who gets his or her meals from a soup kitchen must give tzedakah to another poor person.
The rabbis teach us that each child is the product of three — mother, father, and God — and is therefore obligated to honor each, and that each adult is the product of three — those who came before, those who are with us now, and God. No one does it alone. Ingratitude and arrogance are ugly; each of us has an obligation to acknowledge these debts with our words and our deeds.