In the shtetl communities of Eastern Europe, there were often sages who would seclude themselves in houses of study and spend the entire day in prayer and contemplation of the Talmud and its commentaries.

The Baal Shem Tov once entered a room where one of these self-styled saints was sitting. “How are you feeling?” the Baal Shem Tov asked. “Did you have a good breakfast today?”

The scholar looked at the Baal Shem Tov in confusion. What did he want from him? Didn’t he see that he was studying?

The Baal Shem Tov, however, persisted: Do you have warm clothes? Do you have a comfortable home?”

The scholar finally erupted in anger. “Why are you disturbing me?” he asked the Baal Shem Tov.

“You’re making a mistake,” the Baal Shem Tov replied. “Any simple Jew would respond to these questions by saying ‘Boruch Hashem’ or ‘Thank G‑d.’ By not responding in this manner, you’re taking away G‑d’s dwelling place. For the Psalms describe Him as ‘sitting on the praises of Israel.’ For G‑d to rest within our world, we have to acknowledge Him through praise.”

The Baal Shem Tov could have asked the scholar whether his studies were proceeding well. It would have been far more likely that he would have answered him then. Instead, he asked him about physical things. For the intent is that G‑d be praised — and thus caused to dwell — within the physical realm, that we bring the awareness of Him into our basic material activities. Hence the questions asked by the Baal Shem Tov.

Parshas Ki Savo

One of the most important attributes we look for in people is the ability to say “thank you”; the sensitivity to appreciate that a favor has been done and the forthrightness to express that appreciation openly.

Appreciation stems from involvement; the deeper the relationship between people, the more one appreciates the uniqueness of the other. When a person appreciates a colleague, he is motivated to do whatever he can for that other person.

If this is true with regard to our relationship with our fellow man, it certainly applies with regard to our relationship with G‑d. One of the major thrusts in Judaism is hakaras hatov, appreciation of the good that G‑d constantly bestows upon us. Here, too, the emphasis is on appreciating not only the material dimension of G‑d’s kindness, but also the love and care that He showers on every person.

In this vein, we can understand the sequence of the subjects mentioned in our Torah reading, Parshas Ki Savo. The reading begins by describing the mitzvah of bikkurim, the first fruits that the Jews would bring to the Temple, and shortly afterwards speaks of a covenant concerning the entire Torah.

What is the connection between these subjects?

The mitzvah of bikkurim was instituted to show our gratitude for the good G‑d has granted us and to display our appreciation to Him for “granting us all the blessings of this world.” This appreciation is not expressed merely by words of thanks, but through deed. A person would select his first fruits and make a special journey to bring them to Jerusalem as an offering to show his thanks to G‑d. Moreover, the first fruits would thereby become consecrated, indicating that a lasting connection to G‑d’s holiness had been established within the material world.

Herein lies the connection to the entire Torah, for in a larger sense, every aspect of a person’s life can become bikkurim. We are always standing “before G‑d” and we should express our thanks for His goodness.

To refer back to showing appreciation to a friend: Saying thanks in a meaningful way requires a person to tune into the mindset of the person he wants to thank. If he doesn’t, his gesture is superficial, perhaps satisfying his own need, but not giving anything to the other person.

Here, too, a parallel applies in our relationship with G‑d. We must say thank you in a way that He would appreciate, i.e., serving Him according to His conception, not our own.

This lesson is uniquely appropriate for the present time of year, the middle of the month of Elul, when we take stock of our Divine service of the previous year and prepare for the coming year beginning in a few short weeks. It’s a time to think seriously of all the good G‑d has given us and say thank you by increasing our observance of the Torah and its mitzvos.

Looking to the Horizon

Saying thank you is also integrally connected to the coming of Mashiach. Our Sages relate that after the miraculous humiliation of the Assyrian king, Sannecherib, G‑d desired to bring the ultimate Redemption, making King Hezekiah the Mashiach. Why didn’t He? Because Hezekiah did not celebrate the miracle with songs of praise.

G‑d wants us to appreciate and acknowledge the workings of His hand. That realization should prompt happiness and joy to the point that we break out in joyous song.

Such a realization is fundamentally relevant to the motif of Redemption, because it is in the era of the Redemption that we will actually realize that this is G‑d’s world.

Today, most of us lack this awareness. We view the world as following its own rhythm and running on its own. This is why our Sages call exile a dream. When you dream, you live in a world that you create. You don’t know what is really true.

The same is true of the exile. It hides the truth and prevents us from realizing that we are living in G‑d’s world. In doing so, it hold backs true happiness.

In the era of the Redemption, the veil will be lifted and all mankind will share the awareness of G‑d. By living in the spirit of the Redemption, conducting our lives in recognition of G‑d’s presence, we anticipate and precipitate the coming of the time when this awareness will encompass all existence.