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Parashat Tzav 5772 – 03/28/2012

Parashat Tzav

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

If he shall offer it for a thanksgiving-offering… (7:12)

Any time one has encountered a life-threatening situation and has come through it, one is required to bring a korban todah / thanksgiving offering.  There are four “statutory” situations which make a thanksgiving offering obligatory: a serious illness, dangerous imprisonment [in Talmudic times any imprisonment by the capricious and barbaric Roman government was dangerous], a sea voyage or a desert journey.  Nowadays that the Temple is gone we have no opportunity to offer the korban todah, but we recite the prayer birkat hagomel (blessing of the One Who grants mercy) in its stead.  Last year we took the opportunity to speak about hakarat hatov – acknowledging the good that has been done for us, be it by Gd or by other people.  This time around I would like to consider another aspect of the korban todah – what it tells us about the nature of our relationship with Gd and with the world of “nature.”


The basic idea behind offering thanks to Gd when we are saved from grave danger is our recognition that Gd has arranged matters so that we not die.  There are times when it appears that the arrangements are more or less natural: we need to have open-heart surgery, the surgeon is highly skilled and the operation is a success.  We might even attribute the success to the skill of the surgeon and the OR team, or all the vitamins and supplements we had been taking to prepare our body for the ordeal.  Nonetheless, we are obligated to recognize that Gd is our ultimate benefactor by offering the todah.


In other instances, it is perfectly clear that no input from us or anyone else can help the situation.  For instance, we are on the Mediterranean in a 60-foot wooden craft and a storm comes up (see the Book of Jonah for an example).  Somehow, just before the boat founders, the storm abates and the crew is able to pull it into port.  Clearly we cannot do a controlled experiment to determine whether, for example, boats where the sailors and passengers pray are saved from storms more often than boats where no prayers are said (if there are any such boats – there are no atheists in foxholes!), but we can state with certainty that there is nothing we can do on the physical level to make the storm stop, nor, in general, to save the boat.  Jonah’s sailors strove to bring the boat in, to no avail.  Even the Titanic sank. 


The Jewish view is this: if there is a storm at sea that is endangering this boat at this time, it is a challenge that Gd has sent to the people involved.  How they react, individually and collectively, will determine the future course of their spiritual development, in this world and/or in the next.  In other words, Gd created the universe and the laws of nature as a stage where individual souls can have the opportunity to align their finite individuality with Gd, the infinite basis of all finite values.  As the Creator of nature, Gd can, and does, arrange natural phenomena to provide these opportunities.  These opportunities stretch us to our limits so that our boundaries of thinking and acting can be expanded, and we can realize potentialities that we never believed we had.


The point of the todah offering then, taking the word to mean acknowledgment offering (one of the root meanings of the word from which todah is derived), is to recognize that whatever is happening to us comes from Gd, and is for our good.  Perhaps even if the ship sinks, those who perish offer todah offerings of some kind wherever their souls end up, for they recognize that this outcome too is for their growth and development.  Certainly if one survives then one can offer a todah in this world, and the recognition of Gd’s Providence and Mercy becomes quite clear to us.


The todah offering is actually a shelamim (peace- or wholeness-offering), with the addition of thirty loaves of unleavened bread and 10 of leavened bread, and a restriction on eating the offering to the day it is offered and the following night (Rabbinically restricted further till midnight), as opposed to that day and the next, and the entire intervening night.  Why is the todah more restrictive?  The Imrei Emes (the 3rd Gerrer Rebbe, 1866-1948) explains that the todah comes to thank Gd for a clear miracle.  But truly we are surrounded by miracles at all times – our very existence is a miracle.  Therefore we eat the todah for one day only, in recognition of the fact that tomorrow will have its own miracles (see the Artscroll Series Vayikra).


When we experience something miraculous we are actually being given the opportunity to peer behind the curtain of the material world and to glimpse the ultimate reality at its source.  We inhabit material bodies and the material plane of life, therefore that is where our attention is generally focused.  We understand from biology, chemistry and physics that there are many, many levels of structure and function beneath the visible surface, and we understand further that if one could control the laws of nature on these subtler and more powerful levels, one could produce the desired effects on the surface level of expression.  (“Better living through chemistry.”) 


Our Tradition tells us that at the basis of all these layers of creation is Gd, infinite and unchanging, directing the entire activity of all these layers.  Normally we are unaware of Gd’s existence, which is “cloaked” by the finite objects of creation.  This “cloaking” takes the form of the laws of nature, which lead us to believe that there is a purely physical cause for every physical event.  At times when the physical laws of nature seemed to be bent or broken, we are shocked into a recognition that in fact all forms and phenomena in nature exist and behave as they do based on Gd’s Will.


There is a famous story in the Talmud (Ta’anit 25a).  R. Chanina ben Dosa, who was renowned as a miracle worker, came home Erev Shabbat to find his daughter in tears.  She had put vinegar in the Shabbat lamps by mistake instead of oil.  He told her not to be distressed: The same Gd Who makes oil burn (apparently naturally) can make the vinegar burn just as easily.  Now since R. Chanina ben Dosa was a great tzaddik and had access in perception and action to very deep levels of the structure of creation, the vinegar in fact burned all Shabbat and they used the same lamp for Havdalah.  Now the point of the story is not so much that Gd would set aside the laws of nature for the sake of R. Chanina ben Dosa.  Rather the point is in R. Chanina ben Dosa’s statement virtually equating oil and vinegar.  We do not equate them (although we may mix them for salad dressing…) because we are perceiving them on the level of their differences.  R. Chanina ben Dosa does equate them, because he is perceiving them from closer to Gd’s level, where all differences meld into a great oneness.  For R. Chanina ben Dosa, everything is miraculous, as everything comes directly from Gd’s Hand.


It is said that when the sea split, even a lowly maidservant had greater perception of Gd than did the prophet Yechezkel.  At the time of this great miracle the curtains that cloak the ultimate reality were thrown back and the entire nation became prophets.  The lesson of the todah is that we must all learn to see through the curtains, all day, every day, so that we may live life in the light of Gd as did Adam and Eve on the day they were created.


Chag Kasher v’Sameach!