Did you ever give a gift in whatever form, and think the receiver was ungrateful? Did you expect gratitude? Maybe just a little – after all you went to a lot of trouble to buy and give a gift. Some recognition would be nice.
Maybe you experienced ingratitude in a different way? You made a really special dinner for the family and nobody said thank you? You felt taken for granted… We’ve all been there and it’s not a nice place to be.
But there are two sides to gratitude… What if we turned things back to front? What if gratitude is what we should feel when we give a gift. We give because the recipient is someone or something – a friend, a partner, an organization – that enriches our lives and we’re already grateful for that enrichment. Our gratitude precedes our giving and is intensified when we give, no matter what the response from the recipient.
These last days we’ve had plenty of opportunity to see this kind of gratitude in action. People expressing their gratitude to Queen Elizabeth II for enriching their lives… standing for hours to pay their respects – patient gratitude with no possibility of gratitude from the recipient. It doesn’t speak to everyone, but it’s hard to deny the personal sincerity of the expressions of gratitude.
Often it’s only when someone or something is missing from our lives that we realise we have a debt of gratitude to pay.
This last year many of us gave money and time to help Ukrainian refugees. Gratitude preceded what we did. We were grateful and happy to be able to give and didn’t expect thanks.
Some Dutch people say ‘zonder dank’ – something like ‘don’t mention it’ in English – when they express their gratitude. It might just be a meaningless expression, part of the language, but it says something nonetheless: you don’t have to say thank you. I don’t need gratitude – I feel grateful already because I was able to do something for you, to give you something of what I have, and perhaps not even to feel that I have given.
If we give only for the gratitude we get in return, or only for a commodity we get in return, is that really a gift? The challenge is to see the reward in the gift, our gratitude precedes our gift and is not in the response of the recipient.
In parashah Ki Tavo, the people of Israel are about to enter the promised land and they can expect additional obligations in this new world. Moses describes one of these additional obligations, the mitzvah of Bikurim – bringing the first fruits to the Temple.
From the perspective of the Torah, of course, and of Moses’ description, mitzvah of Bikurim is something for future generations. It will be fulfilled long after Moses has passed, after the people have settled the land, after homes are built, fields and vineyards are planted and the first harvest is gathered.
But Moses also explains that this first fruit is special, ‘holy fruit of the Holy Land’, it’s an expression of gratitude the Israelites already experience. They leave it at the Temple and it is taken by the Temple authorities. No one is waiting to say thank you. It is both reward and gift at the same time.
Some of the rabbis are reminded by another ‘first fruit’ when they reflect on the Bikurim – the very first fruits in the Garden of Eden. But the first humans and their first fruits were a bit of a disaster. Rashi explains that there was a second element to the sin in the Garden of Eden in addition to humankind’s disobedience:
God called to the man, and God said, “Where are you [trying to hide]?” “I heard Your voice in the garden,” [Adam] replied, “and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” [God] asked, “Who told you that you are naked? Did you eat from the tree which I commanded you not to eat?” The man replied, “The woman that you gave to be with me - she gave me what I ate from the tree” (Genesis / Bereishit 3, 9-12).
Adam points the finger at his wife, attempting to shift all the blame to her. Rashi labels this behavior ‘a lack of gratitude’, a lack of appreciation for what God has provided. In a very real sense, this is our ‘original sin’. God created us with limitations – it’s part of our design. We are destined to fail at times no matter who we are. The true test of humans lies in our ability to recognize, appreciate and be grateful for the gifts that God bestows upon us.
High Holidays are often a time of giving – just about every Jewish organization has a special appeal at this time of year. And whether we like it or not, the first fruits of our labour these days are often marked in economic terms.
And as we enter the Days of Awe, we have an opportunity to be grateful for our community, for our synagogue, for the services made available to us – whether we are able to avail of them or not, or even want to – and for the services we make available for others by sustaining our community with gratitude. We have an annual opportunity to give in the form of donations and membership renewals, gifts that are given with gratitude, not for what we get in return.
This is the time of year for giving because we are already grateful. What if gratitude is what we should feel when we give a gift.
 Adapted from Rabbi Ari Kahn. “Understanding the Mitzvah of the First Fruits.” https://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/Gratitude.html