In last week’s parasha (Vayikra) one of the most important (and also one of the longest) parts covered the various sacrifices we were required to give when we had made mistakes. Now in this week’s portion, Parashat Tzav, the Torah explores a different kind of sacrifice and with it – a different concept – the concept of gratitude.
This kind of sacrifice though, and the mitzvah for saying thank you which goes along with it, is hard to understand. When the Torah asks us to repent for our mistakes through bringing gifts this is understandable. The Torah is clear about its expectations of the Jewish people and when people make mistakes there is a need for some sort of atonement. In this particular case it is a financial penalty since one is required to give of their cattle. This penalty is supposed to serve as a deterrent; making sure that next time we won’t make the same mistake.
The sacrifice discussed this week though is puzzling. How can the Torah expect (perhaps even force) one to be grateful? To me a demand to “give thanks” sounds illogical. I cannot simply be thankful on demand. I would need to have true conviction in order to feel thankful enough to declare it in such a manner. And in situations where I do feel thankful for some success I have had; how would I know what level of thankfulness merits an offering like the one described in the parasha? Would success in the workplace be enough? The birth of a child? Perhaps a neighbor helping to fix my television…
At this point the 12th Century Jewish sage, Rashi (Rav Shlomo Yitzchaki), comes to give us the answers. He tells us that there are 4 occasions that are worthy of a person saying thank you:
An additional difference between the “thanksgiving” offering of this week’s parasha and the “sin” offering of last week’s is what we do with the offering itself. The “sin” offering is burned until there is nothing left but ash, while the meat from the “thanksgiving” offering is distributed to all present and is eaten as a meal. Rashi’s commentary on what qualifies as worthy of thanks and the specifics of what we do with the offerings are both here to teach us something very important about gratitude.
We live in a world where we say thank you all the time. It is part of our early education; something we learn from a very young age; that words like please, sorry and thank you are magical and can open almost every door. I believe that this parasha offers an interesting critique of this practice by suggesting that saying thank you is something we should be much more deliberative about.
In the 21st century, by using these words all the time, we have taken meaning out of them. When someone offers me a drink, I’ll answer: No, thank you; when someone makes way for me on the metro/subway, I’ll also say thank you; when I receive my products in the grocery store – once again – thank you. Of course this is lovely, but why are we using the same words when we escape disaster or when we experience a miracle. Surely these words have too much power for the mundane occurrences of daily life.
Rashi’s elucidations on the parasha aim to teach us that true thankfulness should be reserved for the most significant situations. For Rashi – those are the situations which involve serious risks to one’s own life. For me – it’s a lesson in developing personal priorities.
The Parasha is also saying something else; our gratitude must be shared; because it is important for others to know that this moment is important and meaningful for us.
Now I want to be clear that I don’t want us to understand the lesson of the Parasha as: “Do not be polite and don’t thank people around you”. On the contrary; I certainly think we should do this! However, I also think it is important to take some time and write down which four things are most important for us to be grateful for.
That is how we know what our priorities are.
Maxim Delchev is an Educational Coordinator working for the Bet Shalom JCC in Sofia, Bulgaria and is responsible for the Jewish content of the programs for all ages: from 2 days old to 65 years old. His hobby is searching for Jewish values in extraordinary places (one of his articles was on how to teach Jewish values from the Angry birds game).
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