Vayikra 5779-2019: Thanking G-d for the Good
- Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
- Mar 13, 2019
(Revised and updated from Vayikra 5760-2000)
In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, we read about the sacrificial rite. Toward the middle of the parasha, the Torah, in Leviticus 3:1, introduces the “Peace Offering,” the שְׁלָמִים—Sh’lamim.
There are actually three kinds of Peace offerings: a תּוֹדָה–Todah, a thanksgiving offering; נֶדֶר—Neder, a vow offering; and נְדָבָה—N’davah, a freewill offering. Some of the commentaries suggest that the etymology of the word Sh’lamim, is from the word שָׁלֵם —sha’laym, meaning “whole,” symbolizing that a person brings a Sh’lamim offering in order to recognize that he is whole and complete. Another origin may be from the word shalom, symbolizing that a person brings a Sh’lamim offering to acknowledge being at peace with oneself.
The famous 19th century commentator on the Torah, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, defines the purpose of each of the various offerings. The Olah, the burnt offering, is brought by those who seek to draw closer to G-d, by raising the standard of the holiness of their activities. The מִנְחָה—Mincha, the meal offering, represents the joy and satisfaction that people feel in life when they realize how much good G-d gives to each of us. The Sh’lamim, the peace offering, is brought by those who are completely satisfied with life, and feel that nothing is lacking.
Rashi, the Biblical commentator, explains that the Todah, the thanksgiving offering, is brought whenever a miraculous salvation occurs to a person who had been subject to a grave danger: they crossed the sea, traveled through the wilderness, were released from prison, or recovered from an illness. In such instances, says Rashi, we are required to give thanks, as it says in Psalms 107:21, “Let them give thanks to the L-rd for His mercy and for His wonderful works to humankind.”
Nachmanides, the medieval commentator, emphasizes that life itself, the ordinary daily course of nature, is a great Divine miracle. The unusual deliverances and supernatural miracles occur merely to draw our attention to the miracle of existence. “Everything that befalls us in our public and private capacities, is a miracle, and pertains in no way to nature and the way of the world.”
For mere mortals, it is not easy to maintain a constant sense of gratitude for the ongoing miracles that are part of our everyday existence. To the contrary, we often blame the “powers that be” for every negative or uncomfortable occurrence that happens. The phrase, “Where was G-d?” was not coined after the Holocaust, it was already recorded 2500 years ago in the book of Malachi 2:17, where the prophet speaks of G-d’s reaction to the constant human complaints: הוֹגַעְתֶּם השׁם בְּדִבְרֵיכֶם, וַאֲמַרְתֶּם בַּמָּה הוֹגָעְנוּ You have wearied the L-rd with your words, yet you say: Wherein have we wearied Him? The prophet responds by saying that they have wearied G-d with their constant complaint: ?אַיֵּה, אֱ־לֹקֵי הַמִּשְׁפָּט, Where is the G-d of justice?
Whenever calamity strikes, large or small, we often look for someone to blame. More often than not, we blame G-d by saying: “Where was G-d when I needed Him? How could G-d allow this to happen?” While G-d is the First Cause, the Prime Mover, and certainly responsible for everything, much of misfortune and calamity that strikes us is of human origin. We have polluted the rivers and contaminated the lands. We’ve destroyed the ozone layer with our irresponsible behavior. We smoke, we drink, we misbehave, and when we are stricken, we cry out, “Where was G-d?”
The Talmud (Megillah 13b), tells us that G-d has created the cure for every malady and has provided the resources to heal every disease. But, instead, we’ve chosen to divert billions of dollars to develop nuclear arms, and many more billions on entertainment, violence and sex. There are people in our own backyards who are starving, our neighbors are dying of terminal diseases, but we fail to make the association with our profligate behavior. With the immense resources we possess, we have the capacity to eradicate those diseases, to eliminate hunger and heal many of the world’s sorrows. It is our choice, but we choose to negate our role and evade our responsibilities.
Over the last one hundred years, the life expectancy of the average person in developed countries has increased by more than 25 years. The average life expectancy for men and women is now over 75, approaching 80, and it is not unlikely that people will soon regularly live to 100 and beyond. Why is it that no one says, “Where is G-d? I’d like to thank Him! Where is G-d? He added an extra 25, 30, 40 years to my life; I’d like to express my gratitude. He gave the doctors the capacity to heal a disease that would have been terminal ten years ago, and I’m still here trucking and kicking! I’d like to thank Him!”
That’s what the Sh’lamim, the peace offering sacrifice, represents. We need to express our gratitude to G-d on a regular basis, not just cry out and denounce G-d when things go wrong or when we experience discomfort.
In 1992, a year after my mother passed away, I wrote an essay elaborating on the idea of expressing gratitude, entitled “Saying ‘Thank You’ for the Good.” I’d like to share this essay with you because I feel that it is just as relevant today as it was then, and, hopefully, will be tomorrow.
More than a year has passed since my mother, of blessed memory, passed away. Of course, it was not an easy year, but it flew by rapidly.
Many of the laws and customs of aveylut (mourning) had deep impact on me. But, the requirement to say Kaddish with a minyan every morning and evening had a particularly profound impact–throwing my daily schedule and already tumultuous life into even greater turmoil. There were times when I was delayed on trains and planes, and was certain that I would miss Kaddish. But, somehow, I never once missed reciting Kaddish during the entire year–which is quite a tribute, especially to the New York subway system! Often, it required something little short of a miracle, but I made it, and now I can finally take a deep breath, and plod on.
I must admit, that saying Kaddish for me was not a terrible inconvenience, since, even before I became a mourner, I regularly attended Shacharit and Mincha services daily, and tried as often as I could to attend Maariv services regularly. I can’t fathom how difficult this new routine must be for those who do not attend minyan regularly. The tensions I experienced, as someone who was used to going to services, were enormous. How overwhelming it must be for someone who is suddenly thrust into this awesome and demanding regimen.
What really amazed me was how casual my attitude toward synagogue attendance became immediately after the first Yahrtzeit. It took less than three weeks for me to miss minyan, and while I am sincerely trying not to miss too often, it is very likely that I am going to miss far more frequently than I did during my year of mourning.
Yes, I recognize the irony. Now, thank G-d, that everyone is OK, my 88 year-old father is doing well, my wife and children are healthy, my work is fulfilling–now that everything is hunky-dory–I somehow can’t manage to get to synagogue as regularly as I did during my period of mourning. When mother was ill, and after she passed away, I never missed. And, now, when I have so much for which to be grateful, I am back to being casual about it! And then, when, G-d forbid, tragedy strikes, as it will inevitably, we call out, “O L-rd, O L-rd, why have You forsaken me!”
“Where were you, Buchwald, when everything was OK?,” He may justifiably ask. “How is it that you couldn’t find the time to say ‘Thank you’?”
It’s easy to complain about the bad. It’s far more difficult to say “Thank You” for the good. But, to be complete, to be at peace with oneself, one needs to express those thanks much more often than we normally do. That’s the extraordinary concept represented by the offering known as “Sh’lamim.”
May you be blessed.
This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.
For mortals, it’s not easy to maintain a sense of gratitude for the constant miracles that are part of our everyday existence. The Sh’lamim, the Peace Offering, enables us to express our gratitude to G-d at all times, and not to just cry out and denounce G-d when things are wrong or uncomfortable. It’s easy to complain about the bad; it’s far more difficult to say “Thank You” for the good.