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Tzav/Shabbos HaGadol: The Greatness of Gratitude

Parshas Tzav delineates the various sacrifices that can be brought in the Mishkan, and subsequently in the temple. One of these Karbanos is the Karban Todah, the thanksgiving offering, which a person can bring to express gratitude to God for something in his life. There are particular instances when a person is obligated to bring a Karban Todah, such as when he is released from prison, overcomes an illness, or survives an overseas journey or other dangerous or life-threatening encounter.

The pesukim (6:1-8:25) describe the exact details involved in bringing a Karban Todah. One must bring the animal sacrifice along with forty loaves of various kinds of breads, cakes, and wafers, and no part of this Karban could be left over after the day on which it is brought. This is somewhat troubling - how can one person be expected to consume such an enormous amount of bread and meat in twenty-four hours??

The Netziv notes that the person who brought the Todah would invite friends and family to partake in a celebration to publicize his gratitude to Hashem. The Abarbanel further explains that the very purpose of including all of this added food in the Karban was to necessitate a public celebration to give thanks for whatever event, incident, or encounter the person bringing the Karban had experienced.

Psychologically, gratitude is very powerful and yet very challenging. When we express our appreciation to someone, we acknowledge that we needed them, which inherently highlights our own weakness, flaw, or shortcoming. At the same time, research has shown that increased gratitude is related to decreased depression and increased happiness and wellbeing. Gratitude is one of the most oft-cited spiritual coping mechanisms that increase our resilience in the face of grief, loss, crisis, uncertainty, hardship, and life in general. While it is exceptionally difficult at times to admit that we are imperfect on our own and are often in need of others and always of God, recognizing this allows us to connect and to access increased blessing.

Because saying thank you is so difficult to do, we would much rather express our gratitude quietly, without fanfare, so everyone can go on believing that all our successes and talents are due only to us, and so no one realizes how very dependent upon each other – and upon God – we actually are. However, it is also precisely for this reason that the Torah commands us to make our gratitude a public affair, to invite others to share in our open expression and celebration of God’s benevolence.

This week, many of us participated directly in overt and public expressions of gratitude. In New York City, every night at 7pm for two (or more) minutes, one can hear the cheers, screams, whistles, and applause of hundreds of thousands of people, expressing appreciation for those on the “front lines” of the COVID-19 pandemic. While perhaps this heartwarming experience also serves the purpose of creating an outlet for hundreds of thousands of isolated, quarantined, anxiety-ridden people to discharge some nervous energy each night, it still is a most touching, public expression of gratitude. Whether you’ve participated in the applause or merely listened and noticed that ballooning of joy and warmth in your heart, you’ve now experienced the power of public gratitude.

Let us take this idea one step further.

There are four special Haftaros that are read after the Parsha in the weeks leading up to the holiday of Pesach. This week, we read the fourth and final Haftara, excerpted from Sefer Michah. The Navi Michah tells of the days of Mashiach, and toward the end of his prophecy, declares in the name of God, “behold I will send to you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the awesome, great day of God, and the hearts of parents will return to their children and children toward their parents,” (Micha 3:23-24). This Shabbos is known as Shabbos HaGadol, the “great” Shabbos, after this Pasuk, due to the phrase “lifnei boh yom Hashem HaGadol v’hanorah,” before the coming of the awesome, great day of God. This Pasuk is a direct allusion to Mashiach: the Navi is telling us that when that Great Day comes, the hearts of parents and children will be reconciled. What can this mean? What do children and parents and their reconciliation have to do with the redemption?

Rashi has an incredible commentary on this Pasuk that so reflects this day and age. He notes that one can read the phrase as follows: “V’heishiv lev avos al banim,” “and the hearts of the parents will return [to God] through their children,” meaning that children will teach their parents about Hashem, about love for Torah and Mitzvos. The learning about and longing for God will be bi-directional, with both children and parents learning from each other. Today, nothing can be more relevant. So many children are returning to Judaism and are beginning to influence their parents and grandparents to learn more, to think more, to increase their God-consciousness.

But what about the end of the phrase, “v’lev banim al avosam,” - “children through or toward their parents”? Perhaps this is foreshadowing that children will continue to cleave to God through their parents’ influence, because our ability to experience gratitude to God or anyone else is derived the very first relationship in which we are lacking and therefore grateful: our relationship with our caregivers. It can feel unnatural for parents to be grateful to their children, until such a time as their children become their caregivers, and even and especially then, such a role-reversal is quite challenging. Similarly, one of the most difficult kinds of gratitude is that of a child toward his parent. It is so obvious, in the best of cases, how much we owe our parents. And yet, we struggle to express our appreciation to them for all they do. Similarly, for parents or teachers, it might feel uncomfortable or unnatural for us to be thanking those “below” us, our children or students. Perhaps we feel uncomfortable admitting when we need help navigating a new form of technology (raise your hand if a young person helped you figure out Zoom this week), or that we’re grateful that they continue to enlighten us with all that they are learning in their generation. And perhaps we young people feel mightily uncomfortable admitting, in today’s independent, young, millennial world, that we need our parents and teachers and “elders.” They are our essential personnel.

A poignant story is told about Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky, who was traveling with his grandson on an airplane. Throughout the trip, Rav Kaminetzky’s grandson treated him with the utmost respect, making sure he had everything he needed, doting on him as one would expect from a grandchild of such a Gadol. At one point during the flight, an elderly gentile commented to the rabbi that he was most impressed with his grandson; his own grandchildren, he admitted sheepishly, certainly did not treat him with that much respect! Rav Kaminetzky smiled and noted that this is because in the perspective of Torah Judaism, the older generation is one link closer to Har Sinai, and to the ultimate truth, whereas in the secular world, the older generations are one generation closer to being monkeys.

While amusing, this story also highlights a fundamental truth: our elders are our link to our history, our traditions, our wisdom, and our Mesorah. Yet, the Navi Michah notes that redemption will only come when we recognize, too, the incredible power of the children, the Tinokos shel Beis raban, who lay the groundwork for our future. To recognize that we need each other, young and old, from all walks of religious life, is to admit our fundamental lack, and the beauty of what it is to be a puzzle piece, not a stand-alone work of art, but a brush stroke in a masterpiece. Gratitude is what helps us maintain that interconnectivity.

This week, take a moment to reflect on the ways in which you gain from another generation. If you are someone’s child or student, think about all your parents or teachers have given you, and all they have taught you. Recognize your resistance to that gratitude, the humility it takes to admit it, and return your heart to them. If you are a parent or teacher, take a moment to reflect upon what you have learned from your children or students, and do the same.

As a nation, we must reflect upon where we are coming from. We can appreciate the freedom and advancement in Torah and science and technology that we have now, but we will be remiss if we do not recognize the seeds from which we have sprouted. Once you have properly reflected, publicize your appreciation. Shout it from the rooftops, magnify your applause – but minimally, tell those to whom you are grateful how much you appreciate them. And above all, amidst the chaos and uncertainty of our world today, take a moment to thank G-d for what we do have, for the opportunities to draw close to Him, and even if it cannot be a public celebration, enjoin others in your gratitude as well.

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