Rabbi Weinreb’s Torah Column, Parshat Tzav (Shabbat Zachor)

Increasing Gratitude

There are certain phrases or expressions that many of us find hard to say. “I love you” is one of them. Another such phrase is “thank you”.

Although these words are difficult for us to pronounce, they each reflect powerful emotions and, when finally uttered, have an unbelievable impact upon the person to whom they are addressed. It is wonderful to hear that one is loved, and it is also wonderful to learn that another person is grateful and appreciative of what one has done for him or her.

In our tradition, gratitude is a primary value. Bachya ibn Pakuda, in his renowned medieval book Duties of the Heart, stresses the centrality of gratitude in the religious experience. For him, the worship of God begins with a sense of gratitude for being alive, for being healthy, for having one’s needs met.

It is no wonder, then, that as the book of Leviticus enumerates the many types of sacrificial offerings which comprise the ancient Temple service, the korban todah, or thanksgiving offering, is prominently included. In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, in Leviticus 7:11-18, the sacrifice known as the korban shelamim, or peace offering, is described in detail. Generally speaking, when a person makes a vow to offer such a sacrifice, whether in a time of distress or when remembering God’s tender mercies, he must bring an animal offering. He brings it to the Temple, the kohen (priest) performs various ritual procedures, and then most of the meat can be consumed by the individual who donated the offering, as long as he finishes it all during the day he brings it, and the following night and day, providing the individual with much more than 24 hours within which to consume the meat.

But the passage which deals with this offering begins with a subtype of the shelamim – the todah. In this instance, besides bringing an animal sacrifice, the donor must also bring four types of bread, and ten breads of each type, totaling forty loaves. The meat and the accompanying loaves of bread must be consumed by daybreak after the night following the preparation of the sacrifice.

The late 19th century commentator known as the Netziv suggests that the thanksgiving offering, or todah, must be accompanied by a public celebration with many guests invited. Therefore, unlike the ordinary shelamim, the numerous loaves of bread are prescribed so that all the guests can partake of the meal. The time within which the meat and breads can be consumed is limited to much less than 24 hours, necessitating the invitation of numerous guests to share in the thanksgiving celebration.

The Netziv teaches us here that expressions of gratitude should ideally not be kept private. Thankfulness is an emotion to share with others in a public celebration.

Not long ago, I came across an article in an academic journal of psychology. The article was entitled Can Prayer Increase Gratitude? The authors quote numerous research studies which correlate gratitude with mental health. They therefore seek ways to promote the feeling of gratitude to foster increased mental health. One way they tried to instill gratitude in their subjects was to encourage them to engage in prayer.

How consistent their findings were to the teachings of Judaism! They found that when people engaged in prayer, they became more aware not of what they were lacking, but of the blessings they had to be thankful for. The very act of prayer inculcated an attitude of gratitude.

The sacrifices offered in our ancient Temple were forcibly discontinued two millennia ago. Our sages teach us that our prayers, although they are mere words, substitute for the sacrifices of old. Whereas once upon a time a Jew would express his gratitude by bringing a thanksgiving offering, today he recites a prayer instead.

The article in the psychology journal teaches us that the relationship between prayer and gratitude is a mutual one. Not only does gratitude lead to thankful prayer, but prayer leads to increased thankfulness. Thus, for those of us who come by our sense of gratitude naturally and with ease, these sacrificial offerings, or these days, the appropriate prayers, can help us express that gratitude.

But for those of us whose sense of gratitude is numbed, prayer is one way to free feelings of thankfulness which are otherwise locked up within us. It allows those feelings to well up and to be effectively expressed.

We often hear the admonition to “count our blessings”. Many of us, either because of our inborn pessimism, or because of the difficulties of life which seem to overshadow our blessings, find it difficult to acknowledge the positives of our life. Without such acknowledgment, gratitude is impossible.

In this week’s Torah portion, we learn not only that gratitude deserves celebration in the holy Temple, but that temple worship can help us feel grateful for what we do have. And we also learn, following the Netziv, of how worthwhile it is to express gratitude in a circle of family and friends.

That gratitude that is the most pleasant of human emotions is so well expressed in these lines from the poet Thomas Gray’s Ode for Music:

Sweet is the breath of vernal shower,
The bees collected treasures sweet,
Sweet music’s melting fall, but sweeter yet
The still small voice of gratitude.

The sage advice we can derive from this week’s Torah portion is: Express gratitude, and not in a “still small voice”, but in a resounding and booming voice for others to hear so that they can share in the emotions of the grateful person, and so that the grateful person can feel those emotions in every fiber of his being.