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Torah Commentary
Tzav (March 15, 2014)

Rabbi Amy B. Ehrlich

I HAD BEEN STUDYING in Israel for some time when my friend arrived as a new oleh, a new resident. Happily, he decided to celebrate his citizenship with a trip south to scuba dive. I was lucky to have a break from school at that same time and joined the adventure. The drive south along the Sinai coast was hot and unending, punctuated by welcome and refreshing swims at Nueba and Dahab. As expected, the destination oasis of Sharm el-Sheikh lived up to its reputation of having the most wondrous underwater life. The week passed too quickly, except for the ride back to Jerusalem, which seemed further away than we remembered. As a proud new Israeli, my friend wanted to share his extensive knowledge of history, and soon we made a detour off the main road and headed toward the coast. He sought the large cannon that had been mounted on the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba. It was the still there, he told me, as a symbol of strength, although decades had then transpired since its use.

The road narrowed. We parked and walked toward the water. Curiously, at ankle level we found wires stretched taut, marking off a square of sand here and there, one after another. Hanging from the wire was a symbol, a red upside-down triangle. Before we knew it, the wind picked up, and we stood in the midst of a sandstorm. Neither of us could see a thing, but we stepped over the wires and attempted to continue walking toward the water. After 10 minutes — maybe even less (the sand was so biting!) — we retreated to the car. Pausing long enough to pick up a souvenir, a long wooden box with Arabic writing on the outside, we mused: “Who knew what it could become? A plant holder, a desk organizer, a curiosity to be sure!”

It was only when we crossed back into Israel from Sinai that we learned that the box had held a mine and that the red upside-down triangle was the international symbol for a mine field.

All these years later, there are still no words that can capture adequately the shared sense of shock, surprise, relief and gratitude which surged through us…to consider what could have been and how we innocently had tiptoed through danger! But in that moment, there was no way to put our hands around what we felt. The urge to physically do something, to actively express our gratitude, was palpable. For a brief moment, I understood the power of sacrifice — and the human urge to use it as a link to God.

The ancients had a handle on this.

Tzav, this week’s Torah portion, details all manner of sacrifices that the Levitical (priestly) tradition performed to provide an outlet for the spectrum of human experience, from sins to gratitude. Nestled among the categories is the free-will offering zevach haSh’lamim, which has a subcategory called Todah, a thanksgiving offering. (1)

While Levitical recipes were organized by purpose, and ingredients could range from the most modest flour and oil and grain to quite an expensive assortment of animals, the text doesn’t reveal much more. We, readers, are left to wonder about the outcome. What would bringing a sacrifice have felt like for the average Israelite? Would it have achieved that perfect balance of establishing a connection with God while telegraphing a sense of gratitude?

The evolution of that sentiment into contemporary practice (say, for the last 2,000 years) has been transformed ritually into a blessing known as Birkat HaGomeil, the Thanksgiving blessing, recited by those who have passed safely through dangerous circumstances. The Talmud outlines four specific categories when saying Birkat HaGomeil is indicated: Crossing the sea, traveling through a desert (I qualified!), recovery from a significant illness and freedom from captivity (jail or as a hostage). Surely there is always a human component that makes it possible to surmount all these difficulties, yet there is also a larger debt of gratitude to be acknowledged.

So, in the presence of the community, the grateful individual would say: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has bestowed every goodness upon us.” To which the congregation responds: “May the One who has bestowed goodness upon us continue to bestow every goodness upon us forever and ever.” (2)

The congregational response acts as a welcome home, affirming our reengagement in Jewish life. It is a scripted way of saying you are really fortunate to appreciate what has been restored — health, safety. That insight creates an unmistakable bond with the Levitical tradition.

Ever since prayer replaced sacrifice, the human desire to give thanks has not diminished. By acknowledging that our welfare is not entirely in our own hands, offering up our words is the best we can do. Besides, what else can we give God, who has everything?


(1) Most students of Hebrew learn the word Todah, meaning “thanks,” as part of their earliest vocabulary.

The JPS Torah commentary teaches that “the Todah occupied a special position in the Rabbinic tradition because it symbolized the pure expression of gratitude to God. It was not obligatory; nor was it occasioned by sinfulness or guilt, nor even by the motives that induced Israelites to pledge votive sacrifices when confronted by danger.” (JPS, p. 43, note on Lev 7:15)

(2) Mishkan T’filah, p. 371

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