What Does It Mean To Survive?
The Meaning Behind The Thanksgiving Offering
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this week's video, we explores the verses that teach about the Todah — the Thanksgiving sacrifice. Who is supposed to bring a sacrifice of Thanksgiving? According to the Talmud, there are four individuals who would bring a Todah. But when you look at this list, you may notice that they all seem to have something in common — except for one of them. Which one of these four doesn't belong?
Rabbi Fohrman examines this questions, and his study helps to reveal a surprising insight about one of the people who is required to bring a Todah — a person who recovered from a life-threatening illness. These insights help us to gain a deeper level of empathy for those who are ill — and may even inspires us to offer thanks to God for the healing of our own bodies.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Parshat Tzav.
This week's Parsha gives us a chance to play one of my favorite games: which one of these things is not like the other?
Defining the Meaning of the Todah OfferingFor all you fans of Sesame Street, you know about the game. The screen splits into four sections. Four items pop up on the screen and the music begins to play and you try to decide which one of those four things is not like the other, which one is just categorically different. Well we can play that kind of game a lot throughout the Torah.
Every once in a while, we come across these groups of things. When we look at the group, there seems to be a general commonality in all the elements of the group. But oftentimes, one of the elements doesn't seem to belong. What do you do when you're reading the Torah and you come across that kind of thing?
We have two choices. One choice is, the thing really doesn't belong. The other choice is, you haven't understood the overall category. That second choice suggests that the Torah is challenging you to think carefully about these four things, and to try to discern what is their true underlying common denominator.
I'll give you a quick example of this. Let's say you are reading the first tablet of the Ten Commandments, and you are trying to figure out what category do all these commandments belong to? So, you remember you learned in school – they're all about Mitzvot beyn adam u'l'makom - Mitzvot that govern the relationships between man and God. And you test it out. "I am the Lord, your God", "Do not have any other Gods before me", "Don't take my name in vain", "Honor the Sabbath to keep it holy"…you got one more left on the tablet: 'Honor your father and mother'. What's going on with that? Last I checked, your parents were people too. What is that doing on the tablet that supposedly governs Mitzvot between man and God?
The answer is, maybe we got the category wrong. Maybe the category isn't about Mitzvot between man and God. To really understand the category you have to ask yourself: what is common between all those first four Mitzvot between man and God and that last 'Mitzvah' between people and their parents? What's the common denominator here between all those Mitzvot. What's the commonality between parents and God?
And that brings you to the answer: Creators. Parents and God are both our creators. We have heavenly creators, and we have earthly creators. The first tablet of the Ten Commandments is about Mitzvot between people and their creators, whether they are heavenly or whether they are earthly…changes the way you look at the tablet.
When we look at our Parsha, Parshat Tzav, we can play this game with similar surprising results. Our Parsha speaks about a particular kind offering known as a Todah offering, a thanksgiving offering. When do you bring a thanksgiving offering?
Who Must Give a Thanksgiving Sacrifice to God?The Gemara in Brachot cited by Rashi state “four people need to give thanks.” Who are these four?
- "Yordei ha-yam", those who survive a perilous ocean journey,
- "holchei midbarot", those who traverse a desert and survive,
- "mi she haya choleh v'nitrapeh", one who is gravely ill and survived,
- "u-mi she haya chavush b'beit ha-asurim", someone who is locked in the dungeon and was ultimately freed.
The source for this idea, that these are the four kinds of people that need to give thanks, derives from an analysis of Psalm 107, but let's leave that aside for now. Let's just examine these four things and let's play our game. Which one of them is not like the other?
Is there an apparent category that seems to emerge here, but is there one that doesn't really seem to fit? And I think the answer is, yes.
What Is the Meaning of the Thanksgiving Offering?To me, at least, three of these seem to be pretty much the same. Someone who traverses an ocean, someone who traverses a desert, someone who is locked in a dungeon and is ultimately freed – all of these people have been in an environment that does not support life, and have managed to survive. If you pass through a place inhospitable to life and you survive, you have to give thanks.
But the one that doesn't seem to fit is somebody who is stricken with a grave illness. Now, it's true that their life was in danger just like all the others, but they didn't find themselves in a different environment, did they? They were home, they were in the hospital; they weren't in an environment that didn't support life. This one doesn't seem to fit… Or, maybe it does.
Maybe one of the things that the Gemara is telling us is that deep insight into what it means to be gravely ill. When someone is gravely ill, they're also living in an environment that's inherently inhospitable to life. That environment is their own body. The fear, I think, that goes along with sickness, is the sense that one can't trust one's own body.
For who are we really? We're our minds, we're our consciousness. The fundamental environment in which our minds and our consciousnesses live is not just California, New York, Israel or Paris – it's our own body. And when our own body turns on us, becomes like foreign terrain, fundamentally inhospitable to us, that is the scariest thing of all. And when one recovers from that, one gives thanks.
What Is Meant by the Sacrifice of Thanksgiving?The Gemara goes on to say that you need to give thanks with a crowd; you need to do it with at least ten people present. The Todah offering was brought with 40 Chalot – 40 loaves of bread that you'd share with everyone. It seems that part of the idea of giving thanks, that we do so when we are back in the community of humanity; safely, firmly ensconced with other people. We are back home and we thank God for having survived that solitary journey, the journey in which we couldn't trust our surroundings.
Maybe when we visit the sick, one of the comforts we offer is that kind of human connection. When you visit someone who is sick, you're visiting someone who doesn't recognize his surroundings anymore, doesn't recognize his own body any more. At least when they see you, a familiar face, they can connect with someone they do recognize and it brings a kind of respite from the fear of being a stranger in inhospitable and foreign terrain.