Gratitude – Natural and Learned

“If he shall offer it as a todah, a thanksgiving offering…” (Vayikra 7:1).

The gemara reads, “Rabbi Yehudah said that Rav said: There are four who have to thank [Hashem] — those who go down to sea, those who traverse the desert, one who was sick and was cured, and one who was trapped in jail and was freed.” (Berachos 54b) Rav’s list is based on Tehillim’s (ch 105) descriptions of the times we called out to Hashem during the Exodus and He saved us. The connection to the Psalm is also cited by Rashi on the verse describing the offering. (Vayiqra 7:12)

The Vilna Gaon spells out how Rav’s list occurred in the Exodus: (1) Going down into the Red Sea, (2) crossing the Sinai desert, (3) being cured from the whipping and other torture of the Egyptians, and (4) leaving servitude.

And so we see that the korban todah, the thanksgiving offering, and today’s birkhas hagomel, aren’t “only” about being saved. The todah (or saying “hagomel”) is particularly mandatory when we have an echo of that experience in our own lives.

The Maharsha (ad loc) explains that these four things are actually examples representing categories of distractions that prevent man from accomplishing his goal in life. First, that the person has no income, and is too busy plying a trade — going down to sea — to pursue a higher goal. The second is being plagued by enemies, so he is forced to flee, as if to a desert, rather than choosing a place where he could succeeding and force him to invest his time and effort defending what he has rather than progressing. The third is having one’s energy and productivity sapped by disease. The fourth thing that prevents spiritual growth is being imprisoned by wealth and the drive to work for financial success, which can distract a person from Torah.

The todah is not “just” thanking Hashem from saving us from a physical close call, and not even the reminder of the Exodus and its demonstration of Who is saving us. It is appropriate because after losing the proper physical groundwork, one’s spiritual life also decays. “Im ein kemach ein Torah — without flour, there is no Torah.” (Avos 3:21) Yetzias Mitzrayim was about being freed both from “avadim hayinu leFar’oh beMitzrayim — we were enslaved to Par’oh in Egypt” and from “bitechilah ovdei avodah zarah hayu avoseinu — in the beginning our ancestors were idolaters.” And the qorban todah is about both of them happening in our own lives, and acknowledging that it’s Hashem’s Hand that provides us the physical good that aids our spiritual good.

When the wine steward tells Yosef his dream, Yosef gives it a positive interpretation. Not only is this the steward’s personal redemption from imprisonment, it also is the first step toward Yosef assuming the post of second to the king, and therefore lays the groundwork for the Exodus. In describing the dream, the Torah uses the word “kos” (cup) four times. According to Bereishis Rabba, this is the reason why we have four cups of wine at the seider. The better-known reason is the four terms of redemption in the Torah: “vehotzeisi… vehitzalti… vega’alti… velakachti… — I will take you out from under Egypt’s oppression, I will save you from their servitude, I will redeem you, I will take you as My nation.” (Shemos 6:6-8)

The Maharal explains that both the four cups and the four terms are the expression of freedom from these four basic kinds of distractions. In his view, the four cups of the seder are an expression of the thanks of the qorban todah. It is therefore relevant to compare and contrast the qorban pesach with the todah.

“If he offers it as a todah, he shall offer with the todah unleavened loaves… With loaves of leavened bread he shall bring his qorban.” The todah was offered alongside both matzah and 10 loaves of leavened bread. Obviously the pesach is accompanied by matzah alone. Why?

Both the pesach and the todah are bounded by strict time constraints. (Beitzah 19b) The usual shelamim can be eaten the day after it was brought. These two qorbanos can only be eaten through the first night. (Which rabbinically is then limited to before midnight. See Mishnah Berachos 1:1.) This forces the person to share the qorban with others; a person cannot eat an entire lamb in one night. Particularly if you consider that achilah gasah, gorging oneself, is not considered eating nor a fulfillment of the mitzvah. A todah can be served to any Jewish passerby. A qorban pesach can only be eaten by people who joined the offering in advance. Again why?

People relate to mitzvos in two basic ways: There is the expression of what one is feeling, and there is the performance of an act to learn how one ought to feel. The joy of the farmer bringing in his crops could be expressed through his taking the four species on sukkos. However, even if one does not feel that joy and gratitude to Hashem one still is obligated to take them, so as to learn this attitude. In the ideal, both are true — action sparks emotion and attitude, which then express themselves in further action. “One mitzvah leads to another.”

The todah is primarily an expression of one’s natural thankfulness. As the Maharsha describes it, it is the reaction of someone who has just experienced his own minor exodus from being constrained (Mitzrayim) to mishkan-like observance. Reality brought him to a measure of the attitude, and now he wishes to express it. The pesach, however, is based around the full, but historical, event. In fact, it was commanded before the actual departure from Egypt; it is very much a commanded action designed to create a particular reaction within the performer.

Leavened bread is appropriate for a todah celebration. 10 loaves, to share the wealth he feels with others. This is not someone who needs to learn that what he received is a gift rather than the product of “kochi ve’otzem yadi”, his own might. The pesach, the lesson in gratitude, must take a step back and carry with it the reminder that one should be humble. It is therefore eaten only with lechem oni, poor man’s bread, lechem she’onim alav devarim harbei, the bread upon which we learn many things, matzah.

While both qorbanos are shared, the reasons for the sharing are very different. The motivation for sharing the todah is the natural desire to share one’s joy with others. The pesach is a historical joy, the joy that one could only feel if one were connected to our people and its history. As a lesson in connecting to the Jewish people, the joining together to eat the qorban is a necessary precondition to the joy, not something that follows from it.

This same dichotomy between expressing a reaction vs. learning the appropriate reaction underlies the concepts of a previous post about modes of tefillah as well. See “Prayers and Requests“. The Gra speaks of tachanunim, appeals from the heart, expressions of raw need and turning to Hashem, and of tefillah, the prayers designed from the beginning to be scripted in the siddur. Techanunim express our relationship to G-d, tefillos impress Anshei Keneses haGdolah’s and Chazal’s ideas of what a healthy relationship with Him would involve. And note that there too, tefillah, such as Shemoneh Esrei is written in the plural, reflecting the person within his role in the Jewish people as a whole.

And Rav JB Soloveitchik says something similar about mourning for a death and the mourning for generations of the 3 weeks. When someone ch”v mourns a death, it starts out most intense, with aninus and exemption from all obligations, then shiv’ah, the rules of sheloshim, and if it’s a parent, the rules of the rest of the year. However, when mourning the Beis haMiqdash, the Ashkenazi minhagim for the 3 weeks are weakest, then the 9 days, then the week of Tish’ah beAv (when our Sepharadi brothers join us in observance) and the restrictions of Tish’ah beAv itself. The Rav explains the distinction in similar terms. Aveilus for a loved on starts out most intense, when the loss is immediate, and over time the mourner learns to live with the new reality. However, the practices of the Three Weeks are to inculcate a feeling of mourning. Therefore they start closest to the ground level, and build to the point of Tish’ah beAv itself. In our terms — an aveil expresses mourning, whereas the 3 Weeks are aimed at impressing mourning.

When I spoke at my grandson Eviatar’s beris this past Monday, I gave a shorter version of the above. And I closed by noting that a beris includes elements of both the qorban todah and the qorban pesach. We see this in the halakhos of the meal: Like a todah, anyone who comes is welcome to join us in the se’udah. But like a qorban pesach, anyone invited to come is under an obligation to do so. Why? Of course, we are all naturally excited and would want to bring a todah, and so we want to share our joy with a large party. On the other hand, beris milah is something we would never be doing if it weren’t for the mitzvah. We are being told to inclcate a particular kind of joy. Not “just” the birth of someone new, our reach into the future, but the birth of someone new dedicated to the project of bringing Hashem’s Good into the world.

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