Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Thanks a lot! / Tzav

Charles du Bos (1882-1939), French critic of French and English literature, is credited with saying, “The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.”

Yet please consider this, as well: Anthropologists’ general understanding of sacrifices is that they (1) appease a god to prevent disaster; or (2) propitiate a god to insure future favor; or (3) make atonement to a god to avoid punishment. All three are investments in the future with an expected pay-off. The future pay-off is not a change in the one who offers the sacrifices, but rather (hopefully) in the god who receives the sacrifice.

Torah, in parshat Tzav and elsewhere, speaks about the todah, the thanksgiving offering, which is one of several kinds of sh’lamim (offerings of wellbeing).
This is the ritual of the sacrifice of wellbeing that one may offer to the Lord: If he offers it for thanksgiving, he shall offer together with the sacrifice of thanksgiving unleavened cakes with oil mixed in, unleavened wafers spread with oil mixed in, and cakes of choice flour with oil mixed in, well soaked. (Leviticus 7:11-12)
Francois de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), famous for his cynicism, said, “Gratitude is merely the secret hope of further favors.” Given that Rochefoucauld believed that every human act is motivated by self-interest, his take on gratitude comes as no surprise. Is this what underlies the todah? Or is it, in the words of Charles du Bos, a way to “sacrifice what we are for what we would become”?

The todah is different from other sacrifices, and therein may reside the answer and wisdom for us in our lives. First, the todah is optional, not required. Even God cannot compel the emotion of gratitude. That comes from the human heart alone. Second, the todah is made without expectation of future gain; it is a heartfelt thanks concerning what has already been. There are plenty of other sacrifices to make with expectation of recompense from God, but not this one.

Gratitude is a curious thing. It is wonderful to feel gratitude because it means you have been blessed and gifted. At the same time it can make you feel indebted and weak. It all depends on your attitude. Which one describes your experience?

Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz, in his wonderful book of allegories, The Curse of Blessings, tells the story of an Officer of the Law, proud and pompous. The Officer encounters a man in rags who places on him the Curse of Blessings. “Every day you must say a new blessing, one you have never said before. On the day you do not say a new blessing… you will die!” As you might expect, initially it is terribly difficult for the Officer of the Law to think of a new blessing each day; he is not accustomed to feeling or expressing gratitude, but that’s what he must do to find a new blessing to say each day. He succeeds: he blesses the ordinary aspects of his life, then his abilities, then his close relationships, then those around him, then the world around him. I won’t tell you how the story ends so you can have the opportunity to read and savor it yourself. But you get the idea: gratitude extends life and enhances its quality.

Prof. Tal Ben-Shahar, author of the books Being Happy, Happier, and Even Happier teaches the most popular class at Harvard. By now you’ve guessed the title of the course: Happiness. Ben-Shahar teaches that gratitude, not success, is essential for happiness. It’s a matter of perspective and attitude: either arrogance (“I deserve this”) or humility (“how fortunate I am to have this!”). Your choice. (Even Happier is a combined book and workbook for learning the skill of gratitude.)

Talmud teaches us how important attitude is, and that it is our choice what attitude to adopt:
[Ben Zoma] used to say: “What does a good guest say? ‘How much trouble my host has taken for me! How much meat he has set before me! How much wine he has set before me! How many cakes he has set before me! And all the trouble he has taken was only for my sake!’ But what does a bad guest say? ‘How much after all has my host put himself out? I have eaten one piece of bread, I have eaten one slice of meat, I have drunk one cup of wine! All the trouble which my host has taken was only for the sake of his wife and children!’” (Berakhot 58a)
Torah teaches us that gratitude expressed through the todah (thanksgiving) offering is gratitude internalized. It enriches our lives, increases our happiness, and ultimately that of those around us. As President Obama said in a commencement address at Arizona State University in 2009, “Acts of sacrifice and decency without regard to what’s in it for you create ripple effects. Ones that lift up families and communities, that spread opportunity and boost our economy; that reach folks in the forgotten corners of the world who, in committed young people like you, see the true face of America: our strength, our goodness, our diversity, our enduring power, our ideals.”

How about that? There is a pay-off after all! So, whom are you going to thank today?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


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