Be Grateful or Else
The Torah portions before Rosh Hashanah contain an essential message. Farmers in ancient Israel were required to bring their 1st-fruits in baskets to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. How much fruit was one required to bring? That was up to the farmer. It wasn’t easy in those days making the trip to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. There were expanses of land that were uninhabited; the terrain was difficult, sometimes treacherous; there were criminals lying in wait on the way; and if one lived in the north it could take up to 10 days to get there with one’s donkey. All this just for a basket of fruits? No, it wasn’t the fruits that were important. What was important was that you show up and show your gratitude and appreciation.
Today you can get into a car and travel from the most northern border on Israel’s modern highways, and in just a few hours, be in Jerusalem. When the Temple will be rebuilt—may it be speedily in our day—I wonder how that might look. I have in my office an artist’s rendering of people pulling up to the rebuilt Holy Temple with cars, trucks, and even helicopters. I suppose one might think that one could FedEx his 1st-fruit basket like the gift baskets we send today. But how much appreciation would $45 of shipping costs be? No, for the mitzvah of the 1st-fruits one must show up—to be there and present the fruits himself reciting a special declaration of appreciation.
This 1st-Fruits ceremony is all about appreciation and gratitude, and that’s why we read it before Rosh Hashanah. We can’t be ungrateful for G-d’s blessings and then ask Him to forgive us of our sins. Let me suggest an appreciation exercise. Think of 3 things for which you are grateful. Now think of 3 more things. Could you list 10 things for which you’re grateful?
If each of us took a moment every morning to list 10 things for which we are grateful, how might that color our day? Would we smile more? Have more patience with our kids or our co-workers? Would we feel happier? What if we listed those things at night before we went to bed and thanked G-d for them? Would we sleep better?
I think so, and there’s actual hard science supporting this. Researchers at UC Berkeley found that…people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits including stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure; higher levels of positive emotions; more joy, optimism, and happiness; acting with more generosity and compassion; and feeling less lonely and isolated.
This confirms what our sages taught thousands of years ago from the Bikkurim 1st fruits thanksgiving declaration (Deut. 26:5-10) with nine specific statements of gratitude. Why did G-d have to command that we make this declaration? Because it’s human nature to take for granted what we have. We must be trained to be grateful. That’s why our Sages prescribed that we should offer 100 blessings of appreciation to G-d every day. Every time we’re about to eat or drink—even water—we must thank G-d. We begin our Shacharit morning service with a series of blessings thanking G-d for our intelligence, our sight, our ability to afford shoes and our ability to walk. As I get older, I appreciate the ability to walk more and more! There’s even a prayer to be recited after going to the bathroom in thankfulness that our internal plumbing is functioning. Now that’s an attitude of gratitude!
The question is: why does this passage of showing gratitude precede the Tochacha — 98 frightening curses that will befall the Jewish people if they abandon G-d and His Torah? The answer is found in the Torah immediately preceding the 1st Fruits ceremony. It’s the command to destroy Amalek wherever he raises his ugly head. Amalek attacked the Jewish people when they left Egypt from behind where the weakest were to be found. Amalek attacked for no reason. The Jews didn’t threaten them or approach their land. Amalek attacked simply because they were Jewish! It makes no sense. Anti-Semitism never does.
The message is that appreciation and gratitude is the ultimate defense against Amalek and curses. When we’re ungrateful—the Talmud tells us—G-d will send us an Amalek of sorts to teach us a lesson. G-d is, in effect, saying, “If you disrespect Me, if you don’t appreciate what I do for you…Amalek will be on the way to attack you.” In Biblical times it was Amalek who attacked, today it’ll be the Palestinians, Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, or G-d forbid, nuclear Iran. Gratitude to G-d is a most appropriate and powerful lesson — especially for Rosh Hashanah.
One last thing about gratitude. If Amalek and the curses won’t motivate you to be grateful, how about happiness? Dennis Prager writes (Happiness Is a Serious Problem): Yes, there is a “secret to happiness,” and it is gratitude. All happy people are grateful, and ungrateful people cannot be happy. We tend to think that it is being unhappy that leads people to complain, but it is truer to say that it is complaining that leads to people becoming unhappy. Become grateful and you will become a much happier person.
The main theme of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is teshuva—returning to G-d. How? The first thing we must do is be grateful and better appreciate the wonderful blessings Hashem has showered upon us, so that we can draw closer to Him as we enter the New Year with a more grateful, happier, and more loving heart.
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis is the Rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim and author of “Dancing with G-d: How to Connect with God Every Time You Pray.”