Hafrarah: Jeremiah 7:21-28, 9:22-23
(Note: The opening parshas of Leviticus, in particular Vayikra and Tzav, explain in gory detail the offerings that must be brought in the Tabernacle. Divrei torah for these parshas are a little bit hard for the unintiated -- which is presumably, in part, why there were no volunteers last week. I offer this d'var torah on Tzav, but we're going to have to dig a bit to get some good stuff out that's relevant for today)
I want to start off by asking two seemingly unrelated questions:
1. In this parsha, one of the offerings (the Hebrew word is korbon, for which no English word exists, although commonly “offering” or “sacrifice” is used) described is the “Thanksgiving Offering” (I’m going to use the term korban todah). Most of the korbanot (plural of korban) are animals, some are burned and some are eaten. For those that are eaten (and only parts of it are eaten), there is a law that one must finish eating it within a period of two days and one night. The korban todah, however, is an offering of 40 loaves of bread, and all 40 loaves must be eaten in one day, before nightfall. Why is it that this korban todah, which more food than most of the other offerings, has less than half the time in which to eat it?
(this really does get more interesting -- I promise! -- continued...)
2. (This second question needs a bit of background) One of the most important prayers in Judaism is the Shemona Esrei (also called the Amidah), which (on a regular day) is a set of 19 prayers. This prayer is considered so important that, in traditional congregations, after the congregation has said the prayer, the prayer leader says it in its entirety a second time (this is called the “repetition”), and the congregation responds “amen”. Generally speaking, when a person says “amen” to a prayer, it’s as if he or she said it him/herself, and so, if the person got the prayer wrong the first time, by saying “amen” during the repetition, this ensures that his/her obligation still gets fulfilled. And yet there is one prayer of the nineteen where the congregation says their own prayer (with different words) at the same time that the prayer leader is saying his. Why is that?
I hope you're still with me to hear some answers!
(BTW, Most of this comes from a talk given by Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz in 2009, a recording of which appears here. Most of what R Lebowitz had to say came from the writings of the Netziv (aka Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin))
What is gratitude? Cutting to the core, one might consider it an exercise in humility. We are grateful to G-d, or to a particular person for doing ‘x’ – because we couldn’t have done ‘x’ without G-d or a particular person. This is supposed to be the opposite of a worldview that we are “entitled” to everything. The idea is that: we don’t deserve this, but we were helped anyway, and we are extremely grateful to have received the blessing or favor. When someone helps me with my homework, or helps me figure out how to get the darn “start” button to show up on Windows 8, or someone stops to help me change a flat tire, the plain fact of the matter is that I couldn’t do it myself (or, couldn’t do it easily). Gratitude is that admission – the admission that I can’t do everything perfectly, and that I need help, and that you were there to help me. To be truly humbled is to admit, in a public way, that I’m not Mr. I-can-do-anything and that I am relying on help of others.
To go further, this also helps me to dispel the notion (far too common among some) that I am entitled to various things. I’m not entitled to get help for my homework, or flat tire, or what have you – rather, it is out of the goodness of somebody’s else’s heart that I may get this help, even though I don’t necessary deserve it.
And speaking of deserving things – let me take it to another level here and get personal.
I’m a fairly intelligent person and decently athletic. Did I earn that? No way! Did I do anything to deserve those gifts? No way! Am I using my natural given talent to its fullest (umm, can I pass on answering that?). But I feel an obligation to, at the least feel thankful! And then to express appreciation – to G-d, to the universe – that I have these particular talents. (The “pass it on” ethic that exists among some is, in a way, related to this idea. If I’m lucky enough to have a talent, or the recipient of a favor, a way to “pay it back” is by “passing it on”, doing a favor for the next person who needs it, or using my G-d given talents in some constructive way towards making a better universe)
It's not enough just to feel thankful -- in Judaism thinking it isn't enough. There must be an action that accompanies it. It is an expression of sincere humility when I admit, or proclaim, in a public way, that I’m not Mr. I-can-do-anything and that I am relying on help of others; and that whatever gifts I might have been born with were things that I didn’t earn or deserve.
Back to the korban todah.
The korban todah – with its forty loaves that must be eaten in one day – quite simply demands that we invite friends over! We can easily imagine the conversation: “Joe, come over and have some bread with me.” “OK, sure, why?” “I offered a korban todah today and I have a lot to eat.” “Oh? Why did you offer the korban todah?” “Because x, y, and z happened to me, and I want to express my gratitude, and make a party out of this.”
This is why we have so much we have to eat and so little time – because it forces us to share with our friends, and to tell so many people what happened. In other words: publicly expressing his/her appreciation. Keeping it humble. There is a Hebrew term for this: hakaras hatov. It means, essentially, to recognize and express your appreciation for the good that was done to you.
Tangent: when Moses brings on the first plague (turning the Nile into blood), his gives his staff to Aaron. Aaron in turn strikes the river with the staff which actually starts the plague. Why didn’t Moses just strike the river himself? The answer given is that Moses wanted to show hakaras hatov (express his appreciation) for the fact that that very river had saved him when he was a baby and placed in a basket. The obvious question here is: what in the world is the point of expressing appreciation to an inanimate object?! And the answer: if one becomes accustomed to showing and expressing appreciation even to inanimate objects, how much more so will he come to show and express appreciation to his fellow humans. (Tangent off the tangent: the same thing happened with the second plague... but I digress).
Now let’s turn to the second question: why, in the repetition of the Shemona Esrei, does a simple “amen” suffice for 18 of 19 prayers? What’s up with that other prayer?
This “other prayer” is a general thanksgiving prayer. The idea, here, writes the Avudram is that no one can say our “thanks you’s” for us. When the prayer leader asks for healing, we can nod our head and say “amen.” When he asks for peace, we can say “amen.” And so on for 18 prayers, but for the prayer that expresses thanks – no, we have to do that ourselves. It’s not sufficient for someone else to make our thanks for us.
The lessons here, from the korban todah to the seeming oddity in the shemona esrei is that our thanks must be personal, and publicized. We must remember that we live in a world where G-d, and many of our fellow humans, have bestowed upon us many blessings, many good deeds, even many acts of random kindness. It is our obligation to recognize them, and to be thankful. But more than that: feeling thankful isn’t enough. We need to thank, our loud, with our words, and proclaim that we owe our existence and present situation to the goodness of others.
At the end of this week is the holiday of Purim. We are commanded to "publicize the miracle. Why? To show our appreciation. Publicly.
Let us always -- whether the week of Purim or not -- take the time to ponder our blessings, and the acts of good that have helped us, and proclaim our thanks: to G-d, to our friends, to strangers, and to anyone else that may have helped us along our journey in life.