Timely Thanksgiving

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of Naaleh.com

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

In Parshat Tzav, Hashem gives the instructions for various offerings in the Mishkan (and later in the Beit Hamikdosh). Beginning with the olah/elevation offering, the Torah continues with several other offerings and then arrives at instructions for the shelamim/peace offering. While these instructions begin with the general peace offering, the Torah immediately continues with the sub-category of the todah/thanksgiving offering. Although all peace offerings are meant to be eaten by partially by the donors as well as being partially burned on the altar, there are significant differences between the instructions for the other peace offerings and those for the thanksgiving offering.

First, it is important to know that the thanksgiving offering is brought by one who has been saved from four different dangers: crossing a dangerous desert, crossing the sea, [these include other dangerous journeys, perhaps an auto accident. CKS], imprisonment, and serious illness. Now let us find the differences between the thanksgiving offering and the other peace offerings.

While the other peace offerings may be eaten over two full days with the intervening night, the thanksgiving offering must be consumed in only one day and its accompanying night, not being left for the second day. To make this difference even more glaring, the thanksgiving offering, a complete animal, is to be eaten with forty loaves of bread, including ten loaves of leavened bread. Yet it must be consumed in a relatively short time.

In Outlook: Insight, Rabbi Zev Leff explains the psychology of thanksgiving. We feel gratitude when we feel we have received something beyond what we deserve. To illustrate this point, Rabbi Leff cites the Gemara that says no one had offered thanksgiving to Hashem before Leah Imenu, after the birth of her fourth son, Yehudah. While we know that Adam, Noach and our other Patriarchs brought thanksgiving offerings to Hashem, there was a major difference between their offerings and Leah's gratitude. Rabbi Leff explains that all the previous gratitude was for things Hashem did that were beyond normal expectation. Leah's gratitude for this fourth son was for something she felt she had no right to expect or deserve. After all, although Hashem planned on twelve tribes for His chosen nation, he could have divided the sons equally between Yaakov's four wives, giving each three sons. Leah thanked Hashem now because she had received an additional son, beyond what she merited in the natural order of the universe. By naming this son Yehudah, she gives gratitude and confesses that this son is a gift she does not deserve on her own merit.

Taking this idea one step further, we realize that all aspects of life demand that we show gratitude, for our very life is granted us in kindness, not in our personal merit. We certainly need to give thanks for major miracles and sing songs of praise to Hakodosh Boruch Hu for major miracles, such as crossing the Sea, but we must also recognize that Hashem performs miracles for us day and night, under the guise of nature, every day, and for these, too, we must be grateful.

 In the Nishmat prayer of Shabbat, we say we cannot thank Hashem enough, even if "...Our eyes were as brilliant as the sun and the moon..." As Rabbi Meislish notes, when we see Hashem's goodness in full clarity, as in broad daylight, we must thank Hashem. But we must also thank Hashem when His goodness in veiled in the darkness of only a moonlit sky, when, as the Berditchiver Rebbe says, interpreting the words of Shir Hashirim, when we can see Him through the window as He is watching over us, and when we cannot observe His presence as He is peering through the cracks in the latticework. We must recognize His presence even when it is dark, even when we cannot see Him. We must thank Him for the challenges as well as for the joys. As Rabbi Eliyahu Finkel notes, citing Ramban, the whole purpose of creation is to give thanks and to believe in Hashem. We grow and elevate ourselves, bringing us closer to achieving our potential, when we recognize Hashem and thank Him. If a person integrates this reality, he will not fall into the trap of sinning.

How important is gratitude and singing Hashem's praises? In Chochmat Hamatzpun, Rabbi Moshe Egbi writes that Hashem could have sent Moshiach millenia ago, during the time of King Chizkiyahu. In Kings II, we are told that the Assyrians, having exiled the Ten Tribes of Israel, were poised to capture Jerusalem. However, overnight, Hashem sent a plague that destroyed the entire threatening army. Chizkiyahu must have recognized Hashem's miraculous intervention, yet he failed to acknowledge this salvation by composing a song of thanksgiving to Hashem. For this lapse in gratitude, Hashem did not send the Moshiach at that time or coronate Chizkiyahu as the Moshiach.

But it is not enough to merely sing Hashem's praises; one must emulate Hashem by giving of ourselves, by performing chesed as He has done for us. This is the reasoning behind the limited time allotted to eating the korban todah, explains Rabbi Dunner zt”l in Mikdash Halevi. Given the enormous amount of food one brings for this offering, it is impossible for one person alone to consume it all in one day. One is forced, for completely practical considerations, to extend invitations to others to join him in this meal. He is, in essence, announcing an "open house." By inviting others, especially the poor and lonely, he is practicing chesed and emulating Hashem, the purpose of his existence.

When we realize that Hashem does chesed with us every moment of our lives, with every breath we take, writes Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l, we will live our lives emulating Hashem. Even more important than donning talis and tefillin is being involved with people, helping them financially, psychologically, with our time, or with any means we have. As Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin zt”l relates, his father, the author of Nefesh Hachaim, would often rebuke him for not sharing in the pain of others, for man's purpose is to be of assistance to others.

Interestingly, the thanksgiving offering is the only one [excluding the two loaves brought on Shavuot] that includes chametz. Of the forty loaves brought in the offering, half are leavened and half are matzah combinations. Rav. S. R. Hirsch infers from this that the leavened loaves represent the feeling of relief, independence and freedom he feels at his escape from danger. But this feeling must be balanced by his feeling of dependence on Hashem, and his recommitment to His service. This service begins with the chesed he extends through sharing this festive thanksgiving meal with others.

Netziv zt”l provides an additional perspective on the limited time permitted to consume this offering. He notes that by inviting others to his feast, people will ask him what the occasion was. The host then has the opportunity to tell his story, and to publicize the miracle Hashem performed for him, to magnify Hashem's Name in public.

Why should we thank Hashem for saving us when He put us in this challenging situation to begin with? Rabbi Leff tells us that this is the wrong analogy. A better analogy is that of a surgeon who must break a bone to set it properly, so it will grow into a healthy limb. Similarly, sometimes Hashem needs to metaphorically break one of our bones, to put us into challenging, uncomfortable, or even dangerous situations as a corrective measure so that our souls will grow properly into their healthy potential. Therefore, writes Rabbi Beyfus in Yalkut Lekach Tov quoting the Ketav Sofer zt”l, we should thank Hashem not only for the salvation, but also for the challenges that have brought us here. Even though we may never know how a particular challenge was for our good, we must still give thanks, and sometimes Hashem will reveal the reason to us.

These two ideas, of thanking Hashem for our challenges and publicizing the good Hashem did for us, are the cornerstones of the Pesach Seder, of the Maggid/ the retelling of the Pesach narrative. We begin with a general statement of our devastating enslavement and our redemption. But when we begin recounting the details, we begin with the verse the farmer recited when he offered his first fruits to the kohein. The farmer knew the challenges faces in planting his trees or his crops, and is grateful for these first fruits. According to the Targum, והגדת לבנך is translated not as "you will tell your son," but as "you will express gratitude with your son." Retelling the Pesach story to others, with family and friends, fosters greater gratitude and expands the knowledge of Hashem's chesed to us. In turn, we increase our own gratitude and foster gratitude in our children as well. The Seder becomes our korban todah, our thanksgiving offering. To symbolize thanking Hashem for the enslavement as well as the redemption, some have a custom of kissing the marror/bitter herbs, writes Rabbi Avraham Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv.

Rabbi Leff notes that today reciting Birkat Hagomel, the Thanksgiving Blessing, takes the place of the sacrifice. The blessing that must be said publicly, with a minyan present, so that they too will acknowledge the good and bless you with further good.

Rabbi Nevenzahl notes an urgency in the consumption of the thanksgiving offering that he attributes to human nature. We tend to be excited with something new, but when the novelty wears off, our enthusiasm wanes. We are commanded to consume the thanksgiving offering while our enthusiasm is highest, just as we recite a Shehechiyanu blessing only the first time we perform that mitzvah, even if we are performing the mitzvah again multiple times within a given time period.

Rabbi Nevenzahl then continues to differentiate between the permanent and the temporary, between the intellectual and the emotional. He explains that learning Torah is an intellectual pursuit and is permanent. In contrast, tefillah/prayer is emotional and therefore requires intent and focus. Similarly, the thanksgiving offering is an emotional outpouring, needing to be addressed today, at the height of one's emotion. Therefore, if your tefillah lacks an emotional component, it is merely empty words. The emotion encapsulates the gratitude we have.

Rabbi Biederman quoting the Imrei Emes zt”l brings a beautiful reason for limiting the celebratory thanksgiving feast to one day. He reminds us that each day brings us new miracles. Perhaps tomorrow will be an occasion for yet another thanksgiving offering.

It is with this in mind that we can understand Rabbi Druck's explanation of the two kinds of shelamim/peace offerings. While the todah/thanksgiving offering is for an immediate, recognizable salvation, the general shelamim refers to our daily gratitude, for the constant chesed Hashem extends to us. To recognize Hashem's chesed when there is no immediate danger and to offer gratitude for this constant goodness with the regular shelamim offering is therefore on an even higher level than the korban todah. We should not wait until we face challenges and overcome them to thank Hashem; we should be thanking Hashem on a daily basis.

Today, without a Beit Hamikdosh, when we cannot bring offerings, we substitute Birkat Hagomel for the korban todah and often invite others to join us in a thanksgiving meal to show appreciation for Hashem's redeeming us from danger. But we also acknowledge Hashem's daily chasadim in our daily prayers, in Modim as part of Shemoneh Esrei, and in Mizmor Lesodah from Tehillim. The more we are cognizant of all the good we receive, the more grateful we should be, for only through gratitude can we then reach out to others, improve society, and embody the vision Hashem has for us as being created in His image.