What can we be thankful for at a time like this?
Parshas Tzav continues the discussion of korbanos that we began last week and it’s nice to see a sequel that isn’t a letdown. One of the new korbanos mentioned in this week’s parshah is the korban todah, the (non-turkey) thanksgiving offering.
The Gemara lists four people who have an obligation to offer thanks to Hashem: one who safely crossed the sea, one who survived a journey through the desert, one who recovered from illness, and one who was released from prison (B’rachos 54b). Notice a theme? All four encountered a dangerous situation and emerged in one piece on the other side. While any person could volunteer a korban todah to celebrate a happy occasion such as a wedding (Rabbeinu Bachya, VaYikra 6:2), Chazal are emphasizing that the ones who really need to express gratitude are those who suffered and survived.
But what is there to be thankful for? Why should those who have undergone a near-death experience have to thank Hashem for the rescue if it was Hashem who allowed them to be in danger in the first place? And while we’re at it: Why should we raise four glasses of wine and express gratitude to Hashem for taking us out of Egypt, considering it was He who put us in that predicament to begin with?
While we may not be able to fully understand the workings of Hashem, we can relate that when life is running smoothly, it is difficult to remember Him. It is wonderful when we pause to thank Hashem in times of joy, but sometimes that is not enough. It is only when we are in trouble, when we feel trapped, when we feel scared and cannot possibly imagine an end to the crisis – that is when we turn to G-d most sincerely and truly recognize how much we need Him. When Hashem sends us an existential threat in the form of a Haman or a Pharaoh, it is for the sole purpose of bringing us closer to Him (Rabbeinu Bachya, Sh’mos 14:10). The more distant we have drifted from Hashem, the direr the danger needed to bridge the gap.
When we thank Hashem after surviving a near-disaster, we are not only thanking Him for the salvation. We must also acknowledge the threat that brought us closer to Him – because that was the whole point of the harrowing experience in the first place! The ones who have the highest obligation to bring the korban todah are those who have gone through such an ordeal, as they are thanking Hashem for both the danger and the rescue. Similarly, when we praise Hashem at the Pesach Seder, we don’t just thank Him for the miracles. We tell the entire story, beginning with the bad before getting to the good (P’sachim 116a). We relive the torturous enslavement and only then sing about the Mass Exodus. After all, it was the suffering of slavery that created our national relationship with Hashem – perhaps even more than did the joys of freedom.
Our gratitude to Hashem year-round – and especially on Pesach – must acknowledge the closeness that can only come from distance, the pain that leads to gain, the slavery that prepares us for freedom!