What does a Jew do when G-d blesses him with a new crop? As described in this week’s parashah, he brings the first fruits – the bikkurim – to the Beit HaMikdash, and makes the special viduy declaration over them. The purpose of this mitzvah is to declare that one is grateful for all the good that he is given by G-d. This is also the reason why the declaration is called viduy – a term that usually means confession. The viduy over the first fruits is a confession of gratitude. This whole procedure was done with pomp and ceremony, including a parade with fancy baskets and bulls adorned in gold. The viduy itself was recited in a loud voice.
This is not the only place where the Torah commands us to show that we are grateful (makir tovah). Wise people know that the difference between the happy and the despondent is usually not due to money, pleasure, honor, or the like. Rather, happy people are happy because they know how to appreciate what they have been given. And if their cup appears to be half empty, they know that it’s really half full. Even if they have almost no money/pleasure/honor, they feel appreciative to G-d for making the sunrise each morning. This alone can fill one’s heart with happiness. But aside from the benefit a person derives from perceiving the world this way, the Jew is obligated by G-d to thank Him for the sun every day in the morning prayers. As a matter of fact, this is the longest berachah we have. Although many people would be more thankful to G-d for winning the lottery, this is a grave mistake.
If we take a moment to ask ourselves what we need most for survival, we might be inclined to mention money, support, family, friends, house, car, Blackberry, etc. But the Chovot HaLevavot helps us see that we are way off base. He makes the following remarkable observation: What we need most, G-d gives us in the greatest abundance and at the cheapest price – despite the high demand. The thing we really need most is air. Thus G-d made sure that air is free and readily available. The next most important thing for survival is water. Not surprisingly, water is the second most abundant item on the planet. Third is food – also available in abundance… Just thinking about how much G-d actually supports us should inspire us to be appreciative (and to remember just how much we need Him).
Why do people sometimes avoid expressing appreciation? The answer is that appreciation creates obligation – the obligation to recognize that we are not in power, the obligation to be thankful to G-d and to obey His every word.
One way to increase our capacity to be appreciative of G-d is to view ourselves as guests in His world. Concerning guests, the Talmud says: What is the difference between a good guest and a bad one? A good guest says: “Whatever the host made or did was to accommodate me.” The bad guest says: “Whatever the host made or did was for himself. I am just tagging along” (Berachot 58b). With regard to our visit in this world as well, we have to choose what kind of guest we want to be. Do we want to be a good guest and say: “G-d brought the sun up for me today,” or do we want to be a bad guest in this world and say: “G-d had to bring up the sun anyway. I just happen to be here”?
One of my Rabbis says that when we wake up in the morning and bless G-d for opening our eyes (through the blessing (פוקח עוורים, we need to be thankful to G-d for creating light as well – and all the benefits we get from light. We even need to be thankful to G-d for putting it into the human mind to invent glasses. Indeed, the glasses sitting right on our nose can serve as a reminder of all these kindnesses. It seems, by the way, that Moshe Rabbeinu made use of a “built-in” reminder to keep G-d’s kindness to him in the forefront of his mind. We see this in his reluctance to accept G-d’s request that he lead the Jews out of Egyptian slavery. Moshe emphasized that his lisp would prevent him from doing the job effectively. But why, we wonder, didn’t Moshe ask G-d to cure the lisp? The explanation seems to be that Moshe did not want to ever forget his gratitude to G-d for saving his life as a baby when Pharaoh tested him. The Midrash tells us that a dish of gold and a dish of coals were put in front of the baby Moshe. Had he reached for the gold, this would have “clinched” the stargazers’ case that Moshe was destined to be the redeemer of the Jews – and Pharaoh would thus have put him to death. But G-d saved his life by having an angel push his hand away from the gold and over to the coals. The baby Moshe grabbed some coal and put it to his lips, causing a permanent lisp. Moshe wanted this lisp to remain with him in order to always remember this miracle and maintain his gratitude to G-d for it. Moshe’s level of appreciation may be the reason why he was chosen to be our foremost teacher.
A Real Jew
The Jew starts his day with the words מודה אני. The word מודה actually has two connotations. One is confession and the other is thanks. The two are very much connected and are reflected in the Hebrew word for Jew, yehudi. The more we acknowledge and are thankful to G-d for everything He does for us, the better Jews (yehudim) we are.
This concept also applies to being thankful to other human beings. The Midrash says: כל הכופר בטובתו של חברו לבסוף כופר בטובתו של מקום (One who denies the goodness [received] from a friend will eventually deny the goodness [received] from G-d). Those who are ungrateful for the goodness received from others will not be happy because they will not feel thankful for the goodness received from G-d. Only gratitude and appreciation can make a person happy throughout life.