Among the sacrifices detailed in this week’s sedra is the korban todah, the thanksgiving offering:
“If he offers it [the sacrifice] as a thanksgiving offering, then along with this thanksgiving offering he is to offer unleavened loaves mixed with oil, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and loaves of fine flour well-kneaded and mixed with oil.” (Lev. 7: 12).
Though we have been without sacrifices for almost two thousand years, a trace of the thanksgiving offering survives to this day, in the form of the blessing known as Hagomel: “Who bestows good things on the unworthy”, said in the synagogue, at the time of reading of the Torah, by one who has survived a hazardous situation.
What constitutes a hazardous situation? The sages (Berakhot 54b) found the answer in Psalm 107, a song on the theme of giving thanks, beginning with the best- known words of religious gratitude in Judaism: Hodu la-Shem ki tov, ki le-olam chasdo, “Give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness is forever”.
The psalm itself describes four specific situations:
1. Crossing the sea:
“Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters . . . They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away . . . Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.”
2. Crossing a desert:
“Some wandered in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where they could settle. They were hungry and thirsty, and their lives ebbed away. Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”
3. Recovery from serious illness:
“They loathed all food and drew near the gates of death. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He sent forth his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave.”
4. Release from captivity:
“Some sat in darkness and the deepest gloom, prisoners suffering in iron chains . . . Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and the deepest gloom and broke away their chains.”
To this day, these are the situations of hazard (many nowadays include air travel as well as a sea voyage) on which we say Hagomel when we come through them safely.
In his book A Rumour of Angels, the American sociologist Peter Berger describes what he calls “signals of transcendence” – phenomena within the human situation that point to something beyond. Among them he includes humour and hope. There is nothing in nature that explains our ability to reframe painful situations in such a way that we can laugh at them; nor is there anything that can explain the human capacity to find meaning even in the depths of suffering.
These are not, in the classic sense, proofs of the existence of G-d, but they are experiential evidence. They tell us that we are not random concatenations of selfish genes, blindly reproducing themselves. Our bodies may be products of nature (“dust you are, and to dust you will return”), but our minds, our thoughts, our emotions – all that is meant by the word “soul” – are not. There is something within us that reaches out to something beyond us: the soul of the universe, the Divine “You” to which we speak in prayer, and to which our ancestors, when the Temple stood, made their offerings.
Though Berger does not include it, one of the “signals of transcendence” is surely the instinctive human wish to give thanks. Often this is merely human. Someone has done us a favour, given us a gift, comforted us in the midst of grief, or rescued us from danger. We feel we owe them something. That “something” is todah, the Hebrew word that means both “acknowledgement” and “thanks”.
But often we sense something more. It is not just the pilot we want to thank when we land safely after a hazardous flight; not just the surgeon when we survive an operation; not just the judge or politician when we are released from prison or captivity. It is as if some larger force was operative, as if the hand that moves the pieces on the human chessboard were thinking of us; as if heaven itself had reached down and come to our aid.
Insurance companies tend to describe natural catastrophes as “acts of G-d”. Human emotion does the opposite. G-d is in the good news, the miraculous survival, the escape from catastrophe. That instinct – to offer thanks to a force, a presence, over and above natural circumstances and human intervention – is itself a signal of transcendence. That is what was once expressed in the thanksgiving offering, and still is, in the Hagomel prayer. But it is not just by saying Hagomel that we express our thanks.
Elaine and I were on our honeymoon. It was summer, the sun was shining, the beach glorious and the sea inviting. There was just one problem. I could not swim. But as I looked at the sea, I noticed that near to the shore it was very shallow indeed. There were people several hundred yards from the beach, yet the water only came up to their knees. What could be safer, I thought, than simply to walk out into the sea and stop long before I was out of my depth.
I did. I walked out several hundred yards and, yes, the sea only came up to my knees. I turned and started walking back. To my surprise and shock, I found myself suddenly engulfed by water. Evidently, I had walked into a deep dip in the sand. I was out of my depth. I struggled to swim. I failed. This was dangerous. There was no one nearby. The people swimming were a long way away. I went under, again and again. By the fifth time, I knew I was drowning. My life was about to end. What a way – I thought – to start a honeymoon.
Of course someone did save me, otherwise I would not be writing these lines. To this day I do not know who it was: by then I was more or less unconscious. All I know is that he must have seen me struggling. He swam over, took hold of me, and brought me to safety. Since then, the words we say on waking every day have had a deep meaning for me: “I thank You, living and enduring G-d, for You have restored my life to me: great is Your faithfulness.” Anyone who has survived great danger knows what it is to feel, not just to be abstractly aware, that life is a gift of G-d, renewed daily.
The first word of this prayer, Modeh, comes from the same Hebrew root as Todah, “thanksgiving”. So too does the word Yehudi, “Jew”. We acquired the name from Jacob’s fourth son, Judah. He in turn received his name from Leah who, on his birth, said: “This time I will thank [some translate it, “I will praise”] G-d” (Gen. 29: 35). To be a Jew is to offer thanks. That is the meaning of our name and the constitutive gesture of our faith.
There were Jews who, after the Holocaust, sought to define Jewish identity in terms of suffering, victimhood, survival. One theologian spoke of a 614th commandment: You shall not give Hitler a posthumous victory. The historian Salo Baron called this the “lachrymose” reading of history: a story written in tears. I, for one, cannot agree. Yes, there is Jewish suffering. Yet had this been all, Jews would not have done what in fact most did: hand on their identity to their children as their most precious legacy. To be a Jew is to feel a sense of gratitude; to see life itself as a gift; to be able to live through suffering without being defined by it; to give hope the victory over fear. To be a Jew is to offer thanks.