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Parashat 03/16/2011

Parashat Tzav

by Robert Rabinoff

Since our Parashah introduces us to the korban todah – the thanksgiving offering – it is perhaps a good time to discuss the whole concept of giving thanks in Jewish thought.  Giving thanks in Rabbinic parlance is called hakarat hatov, literally “recognizing the good.”  As we see from the expression itself, this is a much broader concept than simply giving thanks.  Even the expression for “thanks,” hoda’ah, is much broader than the current English meaning; it carries the connotation of acknowledgement and recognition as well.  In Talmudic expression we might say “But R. Akiva modeh to R. Eliezer … ” meaning that R. Akiva acknowledges that R. Eliezer’s exposition is correct.  Our Matriarch Leah named her fourth son Yehudah, saying “This time [i.e. for this birth] I will thank Hashem.”  The name Jew comes from Yehudi, i.e. a descendent of Yehudah, but also One who acknowledges Gd.  There is a profound connection between who we are as a people and the concept of thanking and acknowledging every source of goodness in our lives.

To get an idea how deep this concept runs in our tradition, consider the fact that the plagues of blood and frogs (which were directed at the Nile) and the plague of lice (which was directed at the dust of Egypt) were actually brought about by Aharon, not Moshe.  Since the staff was Moshe’s, and Gd was communicating with Moshe, this seemed a bit odd.  The Midrash explains that since the Nile had protected Moshe when he was a baby, and the dust had protected him when he buried the Egyptian taskmaster that he had killed, it would have been inappropriate for him to have brought these plagues on the Nile and the dust.  That task he had to delegate to his brother Aharon. The Rabbis draw the obvious conclusion: If Moshe Rabbeinu had to display hakarat hatov to inanimate objects, how much more so must we display gratitude to our benefactors.  Although we should always strive to help others with no thought of getting anything in return, even their gratitude, we do know that nothing is quite so galling as an ingrate.

We can even view the commandment to honor our parents as an expression of hakarat hatov – our parents gave us life, cared for us through infancy, childhood and adolescence (and sometimes well beyond!), educated us, loved us, comforted us.  We owe our parents a tremendous debt of gratitude!  We can begin to pay it by honoring them and revering them, as the Torah commands.  The Talmud tells us that the one leg that Esav has up over Ya’akov Avinu, by which his descendents (Rome and the West) have been able to keep us subjugated, is that Esav was extremely zealous in honoring his parents, while Ya’akov spent many years away from them, when he was not able to fulfill this mitzvah.  Such is the power of hakarat hatov.

Ultimately of course, we all have One Benefactor, Who has given us not just life, but existence itself.  Furthermore, Gd has revealed Himself to us, at Mt. Sinai, and given us an instruction manual for living our life in accordance with His Will, which will also be for our greatest benefit.  It is to Gd that we owe the greatest hakarat hatov!  On a mundane level, we express our gratitude to Gd for all His blessings every time we make a b’rachah when we enjoy anything in the physical world.  Our Sages tell us that in fact, enjoying anything in the physical creation without saying the appropriate b’rachah is tantamount to stealing from Gd.  The b’rachah is our acknowledgement that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” and that acknowledgement (hoda’ah) is what permits us to use the world for our growth and development.

Why is acknowledging Gd so important?  I believe it is because Gd’s whole purpose in creating the universe was to provide a stage where human beings can use their free will to perfect the creation, until the infinite value of the Creator is perfectly reflected in every little bit of creation.  The Prophet Zechariah (14:9) expressed it thus: On that day the Lord will be One, and His Name will be One.  Of course Gd is always One!  What does it mean to say that He will be One at some time in the future?  Our Sages expound that at that time, in the Messianic Era, every human being will acknowledge that Gd is One – in other words we will draw Gd’s One-ness into the physical realm of duality, creating a perfectly integrated state in and of itself, and one where the creation and the Creator too are perfectly integrated with one another.  We are Yehudim – acknowledgers of Gd – because it is our special task as the Jewish people to lead the way in creating this ideal state of life.

One of our great contemporary Rabbis pointed out that if we want to understand a meaning of a word in Torah, we should look at the first instance where that word is used.  In the case of the word tov, good, we don’t have to read very far: Bereishit 1:4 says: Vayar Elokim et haOr ki tov. Gd saw the light, that it was good.  Goodness is first associated with light.  This light of course is not ordinary electromagnetic light – it is the light of Divinity, emerging from absolute Unity.  It is what we are at the basis of our existence.  In that sense hakarat hatov is acknowledging who we really are, behind all our masks and coverings, beyond all the activity of our mind and body.

So the next time you get change at the grocery store, or someone holds a door open for you, or you have an opportunity to overcome some challenge, be sure to say “Thank You!”  You will fill your heart with bliss and give satisfaction to Gd Who created you.  And you will bring the universe that much closer to fulfillment.