‘I Thank You’ Parashat Tzav 5779

One of the offerings described in Parashat Tzav is the “Korban Toda”, the “Thanksgiving Offering”, given by one who has survived a hazardous ordeal. The Thanksgiving Offering consists of an animal (either a cow, a sheep, or a goat) along with forty loaves of assorted breads, some leavened and some unleavened. Our Sages teach that such a large amount of bread is brought in order to encourage the thankful survivor to throw a large party in which he can publically thank G-d for His salvation. The Talmud in Tractate Berachot [54b] enumerates four categories of people who must bring a Thanksgiving Offering: a person who has taken a long journey at sea (yordei ha’yam), a person who has wandered in the desert (holchei midbarot), a person who was seriously ill and was then cured, and a person who was released from prison. The Talmud’s source is Chapter 107 of Psalms, which describes in great detail the four hazards enumerated in the Talmud[1]. After each hazard, the Psalm concludes, “Then they cried out to G-d in their trouble and He saved them from their distress.”

Tosafot[2] ad loc [DH Arba’a] notes that the order of the hazards for which a person must bring a Thanksgiving Offering as listed in the Talmud differs from the order as listed in Psalm 107:

Talmud Psalm 107
1. Sea 1. Desert
2. Desert 2. Prison
3. Illness 3. Illness
4. Prison 4. Sea

 

Tosafot explains the discrepancy by positing that the Talmud ranks the four hazards in order of frequency – travelling by sea is the most frequent hazard that a person encounters while the rarest hazard is incarceration. The Psalm, on the other hand, ranks the four hazards in order of the level of hazard – being lost in the desert is the most hazardous of the four situations while the great majority of sea voyages end safely.

Rashi, the famous medieval French commentator, in his commentary on Vayikra [7:12], brings yet a third ordering: 1. Sea, 2. Desert, 3. Prison, 4. Illness. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneurson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, suggests that Rashi is ranking the hazards chronologically, as experienced by the Jew who was liberated from Egyptian bondage and who subsequently received the Torah at Sinai. The first hazard that this person experienced was “Sea”, when G-d split the Reed Sea and he passed through on dry land. The next hazard he experienced was “desert”, in his case, the Sinai Desert. G-d rescued him on a daily basis by bringing him manna to eat and water to drink and by shielding him from the elements with the Cloud of Glory. The third hazard this person experienced was “prison” by being sentenced to forty years of wandering in the desert. This person never experienced the fourth hazard, “illness”, as G-d promised the Jewish People immediately after they crossed the Reed Sea [Shemot 15:26], “All of the illnesses that I have visited upon Egypt I will not visit upon you, for I am G-d Who heals you”, and so this hazard is ranked last.

The Rebbe’s use of a personal experiential scale to rank hazards meshes in a very interesting way with a comment made by Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, better known as the “Netziv of Volozhn”, who lived about 150 years ago in Poland. The Netziv points out that the verse that introduces the Thanksgiving Offering begins with the following words [Vayikra 7:11]: “This is the law of the peace offering[3], which he shall bring to G-d”. The words “which he shall bring to G-d” seem superfluous. Every offering must be brought to G-d. The Netziv answers by reminding us that during the forty years in which the Jewish People spent wandering in the desert, they were forbidden to slaughter an animal solely in order to eat its meat[4]. The only way they could enjoy a good burger was by bringing a Peace Offering to the Mishkan. After giving the officiating priest his due, the rest of the meat could be consumed by the owner of the animal. The Thanksgiving Offering differs from the standard Peace Offering in that it is offered together with forty hamburger buns. As bread could be eaten in the desert without bringing an offering, it was forbidden to bring a Thanksgiving Offering solely in order to eat meat. If a person craved burgers, then he had to bring a standard Peace Offering. A Thanksgiving Offering could be brought only if a person really and truly felt thankful for something. The expression of thanks to G-d must be truly experiential. It must come from the heart. It may not be used as a lever for any other purpose[5].

One of the recurring themes in these lessons is the difficulty that humans have in recognizing that they have been the beneficiary of Divine intervention. When a freak wind comes and blows a Gazan rocket into the Mediterranean Sea seconds before it impacts a shopping complex, that is a miracle. But when a missile defense system consisting of millions of moving parts works time and time again, that’s just good engineering. How can we resist this tendency to leave G-d out of the equation? Better yet, is it somehow possible to thank G-d for all those times that He rescued us and we had no idea that we were in any kind of danger? If the expression of thanks to G-d must be truly experiential, how can a person offer thanks when he is uncertain for what he is being thankful? Rabbi Zalman Szorotzkin, the Rabbi of Lutsk, Ukraine, who died in Israel in 1966, writes in “Oznayim LaTorah” that the Thanksgiving Offering is accompanied specifically by four types of bread so as to parallel the four categories of hazards. The loaves of bread represent those instances in which G-d “had our back” and we didn’t even know about it. In this way, each time we recognize G-d and experience godliness, we remind ourselves of the countless times that we did not. Extending this thought further, perhaps these “veiled rescues” are represented specifically by bread because bread is a staple: There is no food more ordinary and more vital than bread and so there is nothing better to serve as a metaphor for miracles masquerading as ordinary coincidences.

The Torah promises us that if a person seeks G-d then he will find Him, but only [Devarim 4:29] “if you seek Him with all of your heart and all of your soul”. We must make a conscientious effort to seek out examples of G-d’s beneficence. I recently heard a suggestion: Each Friday night, go around the Shabbat table and ask each person to name one thing that happened that week that made him happy. If a person does this regularly, then eventually he will begin looking for these kinds of things during the week. And if he looks hard enough, the Torah promises him that he will find what he is looking for.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] For instance, regarding the sea voyager, the Psalm states [107:232-27] “Those who go down to the sea in ships, who do work in mighty waters. They saw the deeds of G-d and His wonders in the deep. He spoke, and He set up a tempest, and it raised its waves. They went up to the heavens, they came down to the depths; their soul melted with trouble. They were frightened and staggered like a drunkard, and all their wisdom was destroyed. Then they cried out…”

[2] Tosafot is a collection of comments on the Talmud and on the commentary of Rashi. Tosafot is collated from multpile authors (Ba’alei Tosafot), most of whom lived in medieval France and Germany.

[3] The Thanksgiving Offering belongs to the family of Peace Offerings (Korban Shelamim).

[4] Basar Ta’ava (literally “meat of desire”) – non-sacral meat – became permitted only after the Jewish People entered the Land of Israel.

[5] Nowadays, as there is no Beit HaMikdash in which to offer sacrifices, the Thanksgiving Offering has been replaced by the “Thanksgiving Blessing (Birkat Hagomel)”. The most popular reason, by far, for making the Thanksgiving Blessing today is air travel. A person goes on vacation to Aruba, has the time of his life, and when he returns home, he is called to the Torah and he makes the Thanksgiving Blessing. There are many Rabbis with broad shoulders, such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who rule that this person must indeed make the Thanksgiving Blessing for having safely returned from an unnatural situation (any flight, not necessarily flight over water). But philosophically speaking, when our Caribbean vacationer returns home, does he truly experience a cathartic feeling of being saved? Did his life flash before his eyes, or maybe, just maybe, could it be that his Thanksgiving Blessing is the culmination of his vacation?

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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