The Midrash (Bereishit 1:4) says that the world was created in the merit of three things: 1) challah; 2) tithes; and 3) the bikurim—the first fruits. It’s evident from the Midrash that the idea of the bikurim—whose theme is one of hakarat hatov—is one of the three pillars for why the world was created. Our parsha begins with the mitzvah of the bikurim. A person who settled in Eretz Yisrael takes his first fruits to the kohen and makes a declaration “dedicating” that day to Hashem. He expresses the memories of Mitzrayim, the suffering we experienced there, and that Hashem redeemed us, eventually bringing us to the land of abundance—Eretz Yisrael, the land flowing with “milk and honey.” And he concludes that now he is bringing the first fruits that Hashem has given him. It’s certainly a moment of tremendous gratitude, an auspicious time of reflection and appreciation.
When someone does you a favor and truly helps you out in a situation where you needed the help, seemingly it suffices to express your appreciation and give a hearty thank you for whatever it was you received. Yet, in this declaration of the first fruits, the owner does not just give a “shkoyach” to Hashem for his abundance, he reminisces the bitter times in Mitzrayim, the suffering, the toil, and finally the redemption and coming to Eretz Yisrael where he merited his abundance! Why the whole story of going from darkness to light?
Rav Yerucham Levovitz points out that mentioning the experience in Mitzrayim magnifies the good that Hashem has given us. It’s one thing to appreciate the good one has, but this scope is somewhat limited. When one, however, remembers the difficulty experienced before the actual good was received, now the appreciation one has for the good and the provider of it are significantly more profound.
When the owner of the first fruits comes to the kohen, the pasuk says: “You shall come to the kohen...and say to him, ‘I declared this day to Hashem, your God, that I have come to the land that Hashem swore to our forefathers to give us.’” This was the owner’s opening words of his declaration. Rashi, on the words “and say to him,” says that he should say this in order that he not be ungrateful.
Why does the owner need to make this declaration in the form of words to show that he is not ungrateful? Isn’t gratitude something that is felt specifically in one’s heart? Rav Yerucham explains that Rashi is coming to emphasize that gratitude in one’s heart is not the totality of having gratitude, but rather the gratitude needs to also be expressed verbally.
I remember hearing from R’ Daniel Kalish why it is that during the chazan’s repetition of the amidah that when it comes to “Modim” the congregation also says their own Modim. Why don’t we just listen to the chazan like the rest of the amidah? He explained that when it comes to hakarat hatov, you can’t just have someone else say it for you, you need to be the one to say it. In other words, we might have the gratitude in our hearts, but we need to show that we really mean it, and therefore perhaps that is why the congregation also says their own modim.
When a person recognizes the good he has, it makes it all the more appreciated when he also reflects on the lack of it and any difficulty there might have been before being a recipient of it. I thought that perhaps this can be a helpful technique when we make brachot: To imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have that which we are blessing Hashem for. It can make it more meaningful if we actually verbalize the whole process. Additionally, when we thank other people for what they may have given to us, sometimes a quick thank you can do the job, but other times we can broaden the appreciation by notifying the benefactor somewhat of the struggle before, and how his or her help was much appreciated now.
Ramban (Shemot 13:16) says a powerful idea: The intention/goal of all the mitzvot is that we should come to believe in Hashem and give thanks that He is our Creator, and this is the whole purpose of the creation of the world; and Hashem’s only desire is that we should come to know Him, and that we express our thanks to Him. According to Ramban, when we strive toward enveloping ourselves with a strong sense of appreciation to Hashem, and we verbalize it, this can be giving Hashem an incredible sense of pleasure and fulfilling the purpose of creation itself.
Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He can be reached at [email protected]