Parashat Tzav: The ritual of gratitude

Parashat Tzav: The ritual of gratitude

While this Shabbat is Shabbat HaGadol-the great Sabbath immediately preceding Passover – my inclination is to delve into the weekly Parasha, Tzav, to gain a better understanding of the sacrificial rituals which were so important and so meaningful to our ancestors. While many will deem the sacrifices to be irrelevant or primitive, at worst, or complex and arcane, at best, those rites were the core of ancient worship, and we do ourselves a disservice by not trying to understand them and appreciate them.

The Korban Todah – the Thanksgiving Sacrifice – has always intrigued me. To be honest, it’s not so much the sacrifice that fascinates me as it is the way we human beings show or express true gratitude… or don’t. Often we offer a perfunctory “Thank God,” sometimes when we say it is truly heartfelt, but rarely does that sense of thankfulness linger. But in Temple times, when we were obligated to bring the Sacrifice of Thanksgiving, undoubtedly that sense of that gratitude had to have lasted longer and made a more profound impact. How could a public, dramatic ritual and the taking of an animal’s life not leave a longer lasting impression?

The Torah does not specify what circumstances required an individual to bring the Korban Todah. One might imagine that there were those who brought them regularly, even for the most minor occasion, and that there were others who rarely, if ever, brought one; that is human nature and reflects the wide variety of our personal perspectives and attitudes.

And because the Torah does not prescribe what occasions merited or mandated this sacrifice, the Rabbis, mining our biblical text for meaning and for answers, demonstrate that there are four specific occasions on which the Sacrifice of Thanksgiving had to be offered. In the Talmud (Berachot 54a) and in Rashi we find reference to Psalm 107 which begins with the well-known phrase, “Hodu ladonai ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo” – “Give thanks to Adonai, whose love is eternal.” And within the Psalm we find that a similar refrain that occurs four times: “Yodu ladonai chasdo, v’nif’l’otav liv’nei adam” – “Acknowledge Adonai’s love and wondrous acts for human beings.”

The circumstances described in this Psalm before each occurrence of this refrain are: 1) traveling through a desert, 2) being released from prison, 3) recovering from an illness and 4) crossing an ocean.

In post-Temple times, when sacrifices are no longer possible, our tradition instituted the beautiful blessing Birkat HaGomel to take the place of the Korban Todah, praising God “who bestows goodness on us despite our imperfections, and who has treated me so favorably.” I am moved by the sensitive phrasing of this blessing each time I have recited it and whenever I contemplate it.

Expressing gratitude to God should not be limited to instances of deliverance, however.

When Leah gave birth to her fourth son she named him Yehudah (Judah), declaring, “Hapa’am odeh et Adonai” – “This time I give thanks to Adonai” (Gen. 29:35). As Jews, we all bear the name of that fourth son Yehudah; we are called Yehudim. Thanksgiving and gratitude should be part and parcel of our make-up, and if not, we should at least try to be more cognizant of the many blessings which are ours, no matter how undeserving we may be.

A greater awareness of God’s blessings and a heightened sense of gratitude will make not just the upcoming Passover holiday, but everyday, more satisfying and fulfilling.