Tzav: The Thanksgiving Offering
For the average reader, this week’s parsha must seem pretty remote: most of it consists of detailed laws about animal offerings, and the remainder is a long description of how Aharon
and his sons were consecrated as priests (Cohanim) to serve in the Tabernacle. What’s in it for us Israelites or Levites–i.e., for us plain schleppers?
Well, there is the prohibition against eating blood and certain animal fats. Okay, not exactly on most people’s Top 10 List of gripping biblical passages.
In truth, however, Tzav, like all of the other portions that focus on the offerings–and indeed, every word and verse of our holy Torah–is filled with teachings of great depth, beauty and interest for all of us. (Even the stuff about blood and fats.) We just need, as always, to look a little deeper…and to allow our Sages, and the classical commentators, to open up its secrets for us.
One of the offerings discussed in this week’s portion is the korban todah, the Thanksgiving Offering, which was brought by someone who survived a perilous situation: a journey at sea or in the wilderness, a prison sentence, or a serious illness. The purpose of this offering was to give thanks al nes shena’asah lo–“for the miracle that was done for him.” Even in exile, without our Temple, a remnant of this practice survives: a person who passes through a similar crisis customarily recites the birkas hagomel, a special blessing of thanksgiving, during the Torah reading in synagogue. The korban todah was part of a larger category of offerings known asPeace Offerings, or shelamim–a name derived from the Hebrew word for peace, shalom. They were unique in that they were one of only a couple of types of offering not brought to atone for a particular transgression.
Rather, a person brought one either to thank Hashem for one of the salvations listed above, or merely to achieve greater closeness to Him. Although it’s true that all the offerings strengthened the connection between Heaven and Earth, Rashi explains that the Peace Offerings had a unique virtue of promoting shalom for all parties concerned. A portion went to the owners, a portion went to the Cohanim and their households, and a portionwas burned on the altar to Hashem. In short, everybody was happy. As the Sages tell us in Midrash Tanchuma, “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: ‘They [the Peace Offerings] are dearer to me than all of the other offerings.”
The Thanksgiving Offering, however, differed from other Peace Offerings in a couple of interesting ways. First, it was brought along with 40 loaves of bread–30 unleavened (matzah) and 10 leavened. A portion of them went to the Cohanim, and the rest to the owners. Second, both meat and bread could only be consumed on the day the animal was slaughtered, or on the following night–unlike the other Peace Offerings, whose meat could be eaten for an additional day.
Why all the loaves, and why the bigger rush in eating?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt’l, who exhaustively analyzes the symbolism of the offerings, explains that the matzah represents complete dedication to G-d: it is simple and without additives, “poor” in providing worldly pleasure or status [lechem oni-bread of poverty]. (Indeed, on the upcoming Pesach holiday, we will highlight this very characteristic of matzah.) The chometz (leavened bread), with its extra taste and richness, represents human independence, the free use of one’s powers, and the worldly station of a person. Therefore, the combination of both symbolically expresses our gratitude for having been saved from danger and returned to one’s full powers (chametz). Yet, at the same time, it affirms that those powers should be used only to serve Hashem, and not squandered on secondary–and dispensable–pursuits (matzah). By bringing the loaves as part of his offering, the person is declaring to G-d: “I exult in my life and strength that you so kindly restored to me, and henceforth, I pledge to sanctify them in Your service.”
As Rabbi Hirsch importantly points out, this dedication of one’s earthly life to G-d does not at all diminish its richness and delight:
“On the contrary, it is just in it that his worldly position receives its true value; it is just in the fact that we do thank G-d for all our deliverances and recoveries and our happiness, and that we have to devote our regained existence in His service, that our happiness and joy in living becomes real and true, and our life full and rich…” (Hirsch Chumash: Volume II, 202-203)
To put it another way, though we have perhaps heard the old refrain, “It’s hard to be a Jew,” we must never lose our appreciation of the great sweetness and delight of that privilege! (It’s only “hard” in the sense that any worthwhile endeavor, or noble and important project, takes work and dedication.) True and lasting enjoyment–in this world, not to mention the next one–comes from complete dedication to G-d and Torah. One’s life is sanctified, and suffused with eternal meaning.
Rabbi Elie Munk, zt’l, in his beautiful commentary, The Call of the Torah, discusses a couple of possible reasons for the special time constraint in eating the Thanksgiving Offering. First, the stipulation to eat such a large amount of food in one day–lots of meat plus 40 loaves of bread–would require the person who brought it to invite many guests to partake with him; he would, thereby, have a chance to publicly give thanks to Hashem for his salvation. The second reason he mentions is particularly beautiful: the Offering had to be finished in one day, “…because the benefits and miracles granted by G-d occur daily, and so the person bringing the offering might very well find it necessary to renew his sacrifice the next day.” (Munk, The Call of the Torah: Volume 3, p. 59; quoting Shaagas Aryeh)
Hold on–do miracles really happen so often? Every day? Our Sages certainly thought so. Moreover, they instructed us to acknowledge the fact three times a day–in the silent Amidah prayer, as part of the blessing known (appropriately) as, Thanksgiving (Modim, or Hoda’ah): “We gratefully thank you…for your miracles that are with us every day…”
The Talmud points out that many of these miracles take place unbeknownst to us, completely beyond our awareness. Use your imagination to confirm this possibility. A distracted driver “wakes up” just in time to avoid plowing into you (I’ve been that driver sometimes!), a bone in the flounder that just narrowly misses lodging in your throat (chew slowly!), and so on. You wonder what G-d does all day–besides study Torah and make shidduchim (marriage partners)? HE’S BUSY SAVING US! The wonder is not how often tragedies occur, but how often they do not occur.
There’s another place in our prayer service where we allude to daily miracles: Mizmor L’todah, A Song of Thanksgiving (Psalm 100), which the Sages incorporated into the introductory praises leading up to the main part of the morning service. The commentaries explain that this psalm was actually sung as an accompaniment to the bringing of the Thanksgiving Offering in the Temple! But why do we say it every day? You guessed it.
The Sages assumed you and I might be saved every single day from perils of which we are not aware. (Munk, The World of Prayer: I, p. 69) “A psalm of thanksgiving, call out to Hashem, everyone on earth. Serve Hashem with gladness, come before Him with joyous song.” (Artscroll Siddur, p. 65; my emphasis.) Daily miracles from G-d above…and daily service from us below. And the very essence of our divine service as Jews is thanksgiving itself–our “joyous song.” After all, it’s embedded in our very name: the term, Yehudim (Jews), comes from that same word again, hoda’ah, thanksgiving–as in korban todah, mizmor l’todah and modim. Our mission in this world, as Jews, is to see the blessings, divine acts of kindness, and miracles that surround us…and to give constant praise and hoda’ah to Hashem for them. I’m not discussing labels–“Orthodox,” “Conservative,” “Reform,” “religious,” “secular.” I’m just talking about living up to our very NAME: yehudim–those who give praise!
So we see that this korban todah, or Thanksgiving Offering, has much to teach us. In fact, its lessons will nourish us even in the messianic times we so long for, when the clear knowledge of G-d filling the world will make all other (atonement) offerings obsolete. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to the Sages of the Midrash: “Rabbi Pinchas and Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Yochanan [said], in the name of Rabbi Menachem of Galya, ‘In the future to come, all of the offerings will be abolished, but the korban todah will not be abolished; all of the prayers will be abolished, but hoda’ah [thanksgiving] will not be abolished, as it says [in The Book of Yirmeyahu, or Jeremiah, where the prophet speaks about what will be heard in the rebuilt city of Yerushalayim]: ‘…the voice of joy, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride, the voice of them that shall say Thank (Hodu) the Lord of Hosts…and they will bring the Thanksgiving Offering (todah) to the House of Hashem.'” (Vayikra Rabbah 7)
Giving thanks is our eternal portion. May we all be blessed to give thanks every day, and to witness Jeremiah’s prophetic vision with our own eyes–speedily, and in our days.