“When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name” (Devarim 26:1-2).
In Judaism, few sins of omission are worse than failure to show gratitude, an ethic of appreciation reflected in the Torah through the ritual of the bikkurim (first fruits) commemorated on Shavuot. The basic rationale behind the bikkurim ritual is that before the Israelites are to enjoy any of the harvest they will reap upon settlement in the land of Canaan, each Israelite must acknowledge before a priest the long and painful journey from slavery to freedom that ultimately allowed them to enjoy that harvest.
The rabbis expand on this idea in the Talmud by stating that, “It is forbidden to enjoy anything of this world without a blessing” (Bavli Berakhot 35a), and later commentators argue that the bikkurim ritual is symbolic of the gratitude we must show for success of any kind. Reb Tzadok Ha-Kohen of Lublin writes that,
“The idea of bikkurim, first fruits, similar to the idea of grace after meals, brings true joy, as it states, “And you shall rejoice with all the good.” Why?…Some success leads to haughtiness. Some leads to a voracious consumerism. Some to jealousy or a desire for more. When we bring these fruits to God and recognize their source, we mitigate the possibility of the success going astray…the success is no longer tainted by temptation and the shirking of the yoke of heaven” (Pri Tzadik, Parashat Ki Tavo).
The bikkurim provide the Israelites a reminder that success cannot go to their heads, for all good fortune is ultimately ephemeral. Yet we also draw a lesson from the bikkurim about how to show gratitude in times of acute stress, for seldom are we completely responsible for our failures on our worst days or our successes on our best.
I cannot help but think about how the consequences of not showing gratitude apply to synagogues. In general, I find that it is most difficult to convince long-time, dedicated synagogue members about the need to change. The synagogue model is changing whether we want it to or not, and oftentimes it can feel like certain synagogue constituencies want the ship to sink rather than learn how to thrive again. However, the same people who are often holding on to the past are the people who give whatever extra money they can to close a budget shortfall at the end of the year, do unglamorous work for the synagogue like fix computers and stuff envelopes, or stay to clean up after a program just because they know it is the right thing to do. Many of those people are the same people in our congregations who like the Ashrei melody used for the past thirty years, or fear losing their seat on the board in an effort to make the lay leadership structure more functional.
Of course, the needs of one individual should not trump what is best for the community, yet perhaps the reason that person shows so much resistance is because he or she feels underappreciated, and if he or she lets the little things go, his or her individual contributions will be ignored and forgotten forever. As we enter the season of Shavuot, the bikkurim provide us a model of what it means to show appreciation, and of the consequences of treating people like commodities that can be thrown away. Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen write in Thanks for the Feedback that terrible consequences can result from ignoring the hard work of others. They write:
“Appreciation is fundamentally about relationship and human connection. At a literal level it says, “thanks.” But appreciation also conveys, “I see you,” “I know how hard you’ve been working,” and “You matter to me”…When people complain that they don’t get enough feedback at work, they often mean that they wonder whether anyone notices or cares how hard they’re working. They don’t want advice. They want appreciation” (32).
The Jewish community faces too many immediate challenges to assume that all transformational change only comes from uprooting our present system, yet change from within requires recognizing, naming and validating the needs of those we are trying to bring along to a new and better world. And regarding synagogues in particular, before we criticize and demonize rabbis, cantors, lay leaders, volunteers and others for stifling change and perpetuating malaise, we should consider how dismissing the tireless work that these people do every day only makes it harder for them to find motivation change, and only exacerbates the lack of appreciation we already show them.
Shavuot always falls close to the end of the fiscal year, which means that many Jewish organizations celebrate this holiday under the shadow of budget shortfalls, staffing cuts, and anxiety about the future. Yet unless we condition ourselves to constantly recognize and name the essential work being done in this moment, we will fail to create the coalition of change necessary for the Jewish Community to thrive in the twenty-first century. How we talk changes how we lead, and let us use Shavuot as an opportunity to give voice to the appreciation that can uplift all of our institutions.