Loyal readers of this column know that I am addicted to books. Not just “holy” books, and not just Jewish books. All books.
Included in my “addiction” is my fondness for browsing bookstores. It took me a while, but I’ve even mastered the self-discipline required to enter a book store, browse for a long while, even finger a few books, and then walk out without buying any.
These days, many bookstores, particularly those which are part of large national chains, often feature an author speaking about his or her book. I find those talks irresistible and have not ever been able to leave the bookstore once the author starts speaking. I generally just sit there and listen to the author, although many writers of interesting written works make quite boring speakers.
One evening, I heard the author of a rather famous work of nonfiction brag that her book was different from most of the others of its genre. “I dedicated my book to no one,” she said. “I thanked no one, and you will find no page, indeed not even a paragraph, of acknowledgments to those who helped me in the long and arduous process of writing the book.”
There was something about that statement that made me feel quite sad. I figured that it would be futile for me to say what I had in mind, but I did consider telling her how wrong I thought she was. She missed an opportunity to publicly, and for posterity, express her gratitude to others. She had an occasion to give voice to a profoundly humane response, and she blew it.
Gratitude is a primary religious value. Many early Jewish philosophers, Bahya ibn Paquda foremost among them, consider gratitude to be the basis of our entire religion. They define the root of all worship as the articulation of thanks to the Creator for our very existence and for the many benefits we receive from Him constantly. Recognizing God’s blessings and acknowledging them is the foundation of religious devotion.
As important as gratitude expressed to God in moments of devotion is, our tradition further insists that we express gratitude to others in our lives that have helped us, even in modest ways. The Rabbis point out that even inanimate objects that have “been there” for us deserve our gratitude, and thus explain Moses’ reluctance to even symbolically strike the Nile or the sand of the desert. After all, they provided protection to Moses at an earlier stage of his life.
But there is an aspect of gratitude that is less commonly recognized, and that is what particularly bothered me that evening in the bookstore. It is the power of public expression of expressing gratitude, of doing so in a social forum, thereby inviting others to share in one’s personal feelings of thankfulness.
The importance of public statements of gratitude—nay, public celebrations of gratitude—has its roots in a number of biblical sources, one of which is in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:25). There, we read of the thanksgiving offering, the korban todah:
“If he offers it for thanksgiving, he shall offer together with the sacrifice unleavened cakes with oil mixed in, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of choice flour with oil mixed in, well soaked. This offering, with cakes of leavened bread added, he shall offer along with his thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being. Out of this he shall offer one of each kind…to the priest… And the flesh…shall be eaten on the day that it is offered; none of it shall be set aside until morning (Leviticus 7:12-15).”
The Rabbis explain that this sacrifice, which combines an animal offering with no less than four species of breads, is to be given by a person who has successfully emerged from a great trial: an illness, an imprisonment, or a sea voyage or desert journey. As an expression of gratitude, he is to bring the animal offering together with a total of forty breads, ten from each species, and donate one of each species to the priest. That leaves him with the meat of an entire animal plus a total of thirty-six breads, all of which must be consumed before dawn of the next day. Can he possibly consume all that food himself?
To this, Don Isaac Abarbanel—who, as personal advisor to Ferdinand and Isabella, no less, had an eminently practical side to him, besides his skills of biblical exegesis—comments: “There was no way he could consume all this himself in such a short time. Obviously, the Torah encouraged him to invite his family, friends, and acquaintances to join him in feasting and in rejoicing. In this assembly, they would ask him to tell his story and question him about what prompted his thanksgiving feast. Thus, he would relate to them the miracles and wonders which God had bestowed upon him, and together all would join in praise of God, in a communal expression of thanksgiving and song.”
One of my personal rabbinic role models was a man named Rabbi Elimelech Bar Shaul. He was the chief Rabbi of Rechovot in Israel, and was a pioneer in the field of religious outreach. He was especially adept at teaching Torah on the university campus, and many of his lectures have been published in a volume called Min HaBe’er¸ “From the Well”. He passed away at a young age, under tragic circumstances, in 1965.
Rabbi Bar Shaul elaborates eloquently upon the benefits for the grateful person to share his experiences with others. “Narration of one’s story changes the story,” he writes. “It helps one integrate it into his behavior; it helps one remember it longer; and it helps one more fully appreciate his good fortune.”
He proceeds to elaborate upon the great benefits that accrue to those who share in the celebration. “It enables them to learn skills of empathy, to see beyond themselves, and to gain the special joy that can only come in the company of other people.”
Rabbi Bar Shaul concludes his inspiring essay on the subject of gratitude by quoting a prophetic Midrash: “In the future-to-come, all the animal sacrifices will be discontinued. But the thanksgiving sacrifice will not be discontinued. All prayers will no longer be necessary, but prayers of thanksgiving will endure.”
He then quotes a collection of comments on the Midrash, Asifat Ma’amarim, in which these words appear: “In that distant future, no one will sin; hence, sacrifices will become irrelevant. Prayer will not be necessary because there will be no illness and no woe. Not that mitzvoth will be obsolete, but if one has no roof there is no mitzvah to build a protective fence around the roof. So too: no sin, no sacrifice; no woes, no prayers. But gratitude, that will be eternally necessary, and even more so in a more perfect world.”
There are certainly religious occasions which warrant solitude.
But occasions for gratitude are not times for solitude.
They are occasions for a party.