David was driving down the highway one day when he noticed a man sporting a kipah standing near a broken-down car. He pulled over to see if he could help. While assisting the fellow, he was surprised to see a cross dangling from his neck. Unable to contain his curiosity he asked, "Are you Jewish, by any chance?"

The fellow responded, "No, not at all."

"So what's with the skullcap?" David asked.

"Oh, that. My mother gave it to me years ago saying that if I ever got stuck on the highway and needed help I should put this on and I'd get help in no time. Hasn't failed me yet…"

Part of a Whole

We are each but one musical note in the haunting and moving melody of our peopleSome mitzvot are communal obligations; others bind the individual. Some highlight the collective whole of our people; others draw attention to each unique piece of the Jewish puzzle.

(An example of a community-based mitzvah is the biblical command to appoint a king. Far from a personal expression of faith and commitment, like Shabbat or kosher for example, this mitzvah focuses on, services, and obligates the nation as a whole.)

There is, however, one particular "personal" mitzvah that teaches that even as we explore our individual path towards G‑d, our personal journey and destiny is deeply intertwined with, and part of the process and progress of our nation.

We are each but one beautiful tree in a breathtaking forest, one musical note in the haunting and moving melody of our people: indispensable, perhaps, but part of a blessed whole.

Sweet Gifts

It will be when you enter the land that G‑d, your G‑d, gives you as an inheritance, and you possess it and dwell in it, that you shall take of the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from your land that G‑d, your G‑d, gives you, and you shall put it in a basket and bring it to place that G‑d, your G‑d, will choose to make His name rest there. Then you shall call out and say before G‑d… [The following verses can be summed up in two words:] "Thank you!"

The mitzvah to bring the best fruit of our land as a display of gratitude towards G‑d for all that He does for us – as a community and as individuals – is by all means a deeply personal one. We each have so much to be thankful for in our lives. Upon reflection, life is much better than we (often) make it out to be. Just take a moment to think about how many of life's important gifts you possess.

Journeying to the Temple was an annual moment of pause which provided a necessary shift of focusJourneying to the Holy Temple was thus an annual moment of pause which provided that necessary shift of focus. Figuratively, it represents the moments in our lives when we stop to put things into perspective and think about how much there is to be grateful for.

Our sages break down the opening verse quoted earlier: "It will be when you enter the land that G‑d gives you as an inheritance, and you possess it and dwell in it."

There's entering, possessing, and dwelling in a land.

Entering it is the equivalent of passing through border control. One enters a land when his feet walk its soil.

Possessing it means owning it. In the case of the Land of Israel, this came about through its conquest.

Dwelling in it means apportioning the land to the people, without which the land's acquisition through conquest is meaningless. One can practically enjoy the land only when he can call a piece of it his own.

For this reason, the obligation to bring of the land's fruit as a token of appreciation was reserved until after the land was apportioned. Until that point the joy and gratitude that people felt were incomplete.

And here's where things get strange.

Historically, the land's conquest took seven years, which was followed by seven years of apportioning. Both processes were gradual: as land was conquered it was allocated.

It would be expected, then, that immediately upon receiving their piece of real estate, each family's obligation to express thanks would commence.

It would be expected, that immediately upon receiving their piece of real estate, each family's obligation to express thanks would commenceAnd yet, according to the biblical commentator Rashi, that was not the case. The obligation of Bikkurim (bringing the first fruit to the Temple) began only after the very last piece of the land was distributed, when the land was settled in its entirety.

The reasoning and message here is extraordinary.

The Jewish people are not individuals of a community or a community of individuals; they are like limbs of a single body.

When one limb – big or small, primary or secondary – is hurting, the entire body hurts. If even one faculty of a body is faulty, the body in its entirety is incomplete.

In Judaism, one can have much, but not all, until every last member of the family is tended to. Until then, our joy and gratitude is lacking. The collective security and comfort of every last one of our people, no matter his level of affiliation or contribution, is essential to the happiness we each experience on a personal level.

For this reason, in biblical times each individual Jew's personal show of gratitude was not made until every last family was provided for.1

The story is told of Rabbi Yechezkel of Kozmir, a great Chasidic master, who once visited his colleague, the legendary Rabbi Bunim of P'shischa.

Towards the end of their conversation, Rabbi Yechezkel took out a box of snuff and offered some to his friend. After delighting in a whiff, Rabbi Bunim asked, "Tell me, Yechezkel, how did you know that precisely at this moment I needed some snuff?"

Rabbi Yechezkel replied, "Tell me, Bunim, how the hand knows when the nose desires a bit of snuff…?"

What's in It for Us?

Did you know that only 15% of Jewish contributions go to Jewish causes?

Does that shock you?

It should.

When it comes to giving charity the Talmud says,2 "Your poor [i.e., your impoverished relatives] take precedence over the non-related poor."

Family comes first.

What's in It for Me?

Before tending to his own needs, the Rebbe participated in providing for the needs of anotherRabbi Chesed Halberstam would often help out in the Rebbe's home. He relates that he was once present when the Rebbe came home for dinner, and noticed that before sitting down to eat, the Rebbe walked over to a charity box stationed near the dining room table and placed a few coins inside.

He eventually came to realize that this was a nightly routine of the Rebbe. Before tending to his own needs, the Rebbe participated in providing for the needs of another.

What a beautiful custom.