A tale is told of two impoverished brothers, each of whom received a monthly stipend from the town philanthropist. One day one of the brothers, an elderly fellow, passed away. At the end of the month, when the surviving brother came to pick up the cash, he counted, recounted, and then looked up chagrined.
“This is my money,” he protested. “What happened to my brother’s stipend?”
“Your brother passed away,” the philanthropist reminded him.
“I know that,” the man replied indignantly. “But who exactly is my brother’s heir — you or me?”
It may have never happened, but the anecdote highlights a certain feeling of entitlement that is pervasive in contemporary society. There is a sense of expectation, an assumption that everything is supposed to be perfect, and when something is lacking there is a distress and even resentment.
This week’s parashah begins with the halachos of Bikkurim, instructing us to take the first fruits to the Kohen, and recite certain pesukim at that time.
“You shall say to him,” prescribes the Torah, and Rashi tells us what to say: “That you are not kafui tovah — you are not unappreciative.”
Hakaras hatov is a fundamental aspect of avodas Hashem, as well as of the relationship between us and our fellow man. Being grateful is a result of recognizing that everything we have is a gift. Every breath of air that we inhale, every step that our feet take, every time we lift an arm, every word we can utter, each is a priceless gift.
In His infinite generosity, Hakadosh Baruch Hu created us. He does not owe us anything. We are all His servants, and as His creations are obligated to do His will. The fact that we receive reward for the mitzvos we fulfill is yet another revelation of the kindness of Hashem.
The Midrash (Breishis Rabbah 1:6) says on the first passuk in the Torah, “Breishis bara Elokim,” that the Ribbono Shel Olam created the world for the sake of the mitzvah of bikkurim (“reishis bikkurei admascha”).
The Alshich Hakadosh asks: What is the significance of this mitzvah, one which obligates everyone from the poorest farmer to the wealthiest landowner, even to King Aggripas himself, to make his way to the Beis Hamikdash with a basket on his shoulder?
What about this mitzvah made it worthwhile for Hashem to create an entire world for its sake?
The Alshich like other meforshim explains that the purpose of this mitzvah is to instill in us the knowledge that, in essence, nothing in the world belongs to us. The Alshich gives the example of a sharecropper granted the right to toil in the field of a nobleman. When the first fruits appear, he chooses a basketful of the finest produce and hastens to the palace of the landowner.
“Before I taste any of the fruits myself,” the sharecropper informs the landowner, “I brought them to you, my master, so that you can see for yourself the fruits of your field; for all of it belongs to you.”
The landowner sees the level of derech eretz of the sharecropper and graciously tells him, “All the rest of the produce you may keep for yourself.”
Through the mitzvah of bikkurim we declare that we are rejecting the dangerously erroneous thought “kochi v’otzem yadi.” By bringing these fruits to the Beis Hamikdash, we are proclaiming that the entire universe and all within it belong to our Creator.
Each moment that Hashem allows a field, a house, or anything else to be in our “possession,” is in effect a new “gift” from Hashem — one that He can take back at any time. If we forget this fact even briefly, we are guilty of the sin of ingratitude. It is this potential ingratitude that the Torah seeks to uproot with the mitzvah of bikkurim.
The poor man with his straw basket of fruit and the wealthy man with containers made of silver and gold walked side by side towards Yerushalayim with great joy and celebration, at each step declaring “LaShem haaretz umelo’ah!”
If we would only approach life with this principle in mind, if we would expect nothing and look at our circumstances with the lenses of gratitude instead of entitlement, how much richer and happier our lives would be!