“Wow! I really appreciate that!”
In our American culture, giving thanks and showing appreciation are, thankfully, an important part of most people’s normal behavior. Yet, as indicated in the quotes above, not every “thank you” is created equal.
So what is the secret to an authentic thank you?
There are many well-known expressions of thanks in Judaism. There is even a special prayer of thanks offered each day upon awakening (the Modeh ani) and the Amidah we recite three times each day includes an additional prayer of thanks (Modim).
In this week’s Torah portion of Ki Tavo, the Torah introduces an entire ceremony and procession of gratitude. I’m referring to the commandment known as bikkurim (lit. “first fruits”).
In the agricultural society of Temple times, Jewish growers would tie ribbons over the first fruits to appear in their orchards as the harvest season began. When they ripened, they’d be picked and placed in designated baskets and then brought to the Temple to be presented to the priests.
The Mishnah in Tractate Bikkurim describes:
“All residents of small villages would first assemble in the nearest big city. In the morning, an announcement would be called out: “Arise! Let us go up to Zion, to the House of G-d!” A complete march would follow. At its head would march an ox with horns overlayed in gold. As they approached Jerusalem, messengers would be dispatched to notify its inhabitants that the march was nearing the gates. The city’s residents would come out to greet them with great honor. When they would arrive at the Temple Mount, each farmer would put his fruit basket on his shoulder and enter the Azarah, the Temple’s courtyard. There, he would give thanks to G-d for all the good He gave: a portion in the Holy Land, and the merit to see the product of his own labor.”
The commentator Rashi in our Torah portion quotes the Midrash with this interesting addition: “After one fulfilled the mitzvah of bringing Bikkurim, a Heavenly Voice would bless him, saying, “You brought Bikkurim today — you shall repeat it next year” (Devarim 26:16).
Maybe this Midrash goes to the very core of the mitzvah of Bikkurim and the essence of gratitude in general.
An authentic “thank you” is something you want to repeat, as opposed to something you want to get over with.
Let me illustrate this idea with a brief anecdote.
Growing up in Brooklyn one of the well-respected rabbis in my neighborhood was Rabbi Yosef Nimotin. He had been exiled to Siberia by Stalin’s regime for his involvement in activities related to spreading and upholding Judaism. Even after his release, he returned to his clandestine “criminal” activities until he emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1981.
Nimotin was not the only such character in our Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, yet the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, OBM, showed him much more personal attention than was his custom. The reason was simple: Nimotin had been one of the only people who assisted one of the greatest Torah giants who had been arrested and exiled. His name was Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson (1878-1944) and he was the Rebbe’s father.
Even after he had succumbed to his sickness, Nimotin remained in Almaty, Kazakhstan, to take care of the upkeep and decorum of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s gravesite.
It is told that at one of the occasions during which the Rebbe publicly expressed his gratitude to Rabbi Yosef, he added “I owe him a lot for his assistance to my father and I don’t want to pay it off.”
When you really appreciate something, you want to thank again, and again, and again. Bikkurim is not about a dry thank you. It’s a perpetual recognition of a good that goes on forever, a concept that is underlined in the blessing “you shall repeat it next year.”
As we approach the High Holidays I humbly suggest that we bring our own Bikkurim this year. What are our Bikkurim? Just as the farmers brought the fruits of their labor let us bring our most treasured “products” — our children — to our own miniature Holy Temple, the synagogue. Let us offer to G-d another one of our most prized possessions — our time — by taking it upon ourselves to attend a Torah class.
And may we all repeat it next year. PJC
Rabbi Mendy Schapiro is spiritual leader of Chabad of Monroeville. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.