An Offering of Thanksgiving
Both The Torah: A Modern Commentary1 and The Torah: A Women's Commentary2 offer the following midrash for this week's portion pertaining to the sacrifice of the sh’lamim given as an offering of thanksgiving:
Though all sacrifices may be discontinued in the future (for in the messianic age humankind will be sinless) the offering of thanksgiving [korban todah] will never cease. Though all prayers may be discontinued, the prayer for thanksgiving will never cease. (Vayikra Rabbah)
The sacrifice or offering of well-being known as sh’lamim, meaning “wholeness” and/or “peace,” is first mentioned in Leviticus 3:1, in the first parashah of the Book of Leviticus. In Tzav, this week’s portion, the Torah elaborates on the purpose and practice of this sacrifice, particularly describing its two purposes. It is used either as an offering of thanksgiving or in fulfillment of a vow. Although it is an animal sacrifice, it may be supplemented with grain and flour offerings as well. Here, let us focus on the idea of an offering of thanksgiving.
Professor Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, in her running commentary on the first parashah of Leviticus in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,3 notes that the sh’lamim offering is linked to celebrations and often brought on feast days. She states that the largest part of this sacrifice was distributed among the priests and the offerers. It was often brought after the burnt offering, which is an offering to God only. She continues:
This means that when Israelites brought sacrifices, some offerings were solely for God, as it were, and some to be eaten by community members . . . . This practice turns the eating of meat into a sacred act (17:1–7) and reflects the concern for taking life for human consumption; the sacrifice has nothing to do with atonement. As Jacob Milgrom observes, this ritual allowed the Israelites to acknowledge the miracles of their lives and express gratitude for them (Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, Jacob Milgrom [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004], p. 28).
The offering of thanksgiving in the form of sacrifice, or later in our tradition in the form of prayer, is the highest expression of gratitude. We praise and we exalt and recognize the miracles of our lives. Deeper gratitude recognizes the simple gift of our lives and the gifts of our daily lives. Our rabbis, ancient and contemporary, are telling us that perhaps this is the practice we must really cultivate: the practice of thanksgiving! But how?
Jewish prayer is divided into three types: praise (shevach), petition (bakasha), and gratitude (hodaya). Within our daily service, we find these three pillars, not always in this order; although the Amidah prayer (“standing prayer” or T’filah), considered the climax of all our “prayer” (t’filah), follows this order. First are prayers of praise that are followed by many petitions, summation with thanks, and then a coda; the prayer for peace, which concludes so many of our prayers. For many of us, praise of an omnipotent God is a struggle: for all of us, petitionary prayers flow; gratitude, however, is often felt but not always expressed with a full heart.
Many years ago at a large Jewish gathering, before it was popular to do these exercises, Rabbi Shira Milgrom (daughter of Professor Jacob Milgrom, quoted above) stopped delivering her speech and asked the hundreds gathered to do something that she had experienced in a Baptist church. She asked us to take a few minutes, turn to a person next to us, and share what we are thankful for. The experience was extraordinary. Suddenly we went from “convention hall” to sacred space! I had been sitting near a rabbinic colleague I did not know well; yet in those few minutes we were able to convey to each other not just gratitude but a real sense of sh’lamim:“wholeness.” This exercise demonstrated that when one honestly expresses gratitude; a sense of well-being takes a gentle hold. Rabbi Milgrom explained that she experienced this in a church where people did not seem to have much to be grateful for and that it was powerful to witness this act of thanksgiving in an impoverished and marginalized neighborhood. This Jewish gathering was a wonderful reminder of our strength, success, and vitality. This exercise was deeply humbling, bringing us closer to those who are indeed impoverished and marginalized.
This week is Shabbat Zachor (“remember”), the Shabbat before Purim. We are reminded to recall what our worst enemies, the Amalekites did to us as we were leaving Egypt (see Exodus 17:8–14 and Deuteronomy 25:17–19). They set out to attack our most defenseless, our impoverished and marginalized. This is unforgivable in our tradition; therefore the Amalekites must be decimated when encountered. On Purim itself, we may be too drunk to tell the difference between the good and the bad, between Mordechai and Haman. Shabbat Zachor tells us just how wicked our enemies can be. They must be eliminated so as never to contaminate us. If power so intoxicates, we will forget those in need. We will get drunk on the power of power.
On Purim, we do not say the ultimate prayer of thanksgiving: the Hallel. One tradition is that because this miracle did not happen in the Land of Israel, no Hallel is recited. The rationale for this may be because on Purim we were saved, but we were not sovereign to integrate the lessons of real gratitude. We may have made things “right,” but we did not make them “whole.”
Our modern prayer book is full of prayers of gratitude in ancient and modern renderings. We sing “Halleluyah” as a way to express this gratitude: a breath-full, heartfelt name for our praising and thanking the Divine. So take a moment, and count your blessings: blessings that will live beyond our lives, blessings that not only make us whole, but also make others whole as well.
The American poet E. E. Cummings4 wrote:
I thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
Amen. And go share this . . .