Parashat Tzav: The Virtues of Thanksgiving

Science and Health

If you have had a loved one who died while in hospice care, you may have received the same little booklets I did with words of encouragement for the journey through grief. As I began to peruse the first one, I was prepared to dismiss it as a collection of irrelevant platitudes. Instead, page after page, it precisely named my feelings. 

The six-month booklet said: “You may be wondering if what you feel will ever go away.” Exactly, I thought. This is exactly what I am wondering. It continued: “It’s important to be patient with yourself. If you trust yourself and persevere, things will get better. We promise.” When I read this, I wasn’t so sure. Would things really get better? But the booklet, which I had started trusting, turned out to be right. 

Perhaps you have had this experience too: feeling gratitude for having the complex feelings washing over you named. 

This week’s Torah portion, which describes various sacrificial offerings by the priests, includes a description of a distinctive category: the zevach shlamim, the well-being offering. (Yes: within the word shlamim, you can hear the familiar word shalom, meaning peace or wholeness.) One specific category of shlamim offering is linked to expressing gratitude. Now here is what is unique about the biblical thanksgiving offering: While other sacrifices were offered by the priests, those bringing a thanksgiving offering were invited to engage in the rituals themselves. As the text says:

The offering to the Lord from a sacrifice of well-being must be presented to the one who offers their sacrifice of well-being to the Lord; their own hands shall present the Lord’s gifts.” (Leviticus 7:29-30)   

The medieval commentator Abravanel added that the individual who brings the offering, needing to consume the sacrifice in a limited period, “invites his relatives and friends to share his meal and joy. On being asked what motivated this feast, the host will recount the Divine wonders.” (Abravanel on Leviticus 7:11) Doing this, wrote Abravanel, the individual, in effect, publicizes the miracle that led to thanksgiving being offered.  

Abraham Joshua Heschel once advised that gratefulness “makes our small souls great.” My own mother also had some good advice on gratitude that she was given to her by her mother, advice I pray I have transmitted to my own children. And it is this: “Always thank people for what they have given you — or given to the world — because they may not be aware of it. You have to tell them.”

As we know from an abundance of scientific research, when we express gratitude, it is not only the recipient of our words who benefits. Keeping a regular gratitude journal, read by no one but ourselves, is also healing because it focuses our attention on the good things in our lives.

So in the spirit of the sacrifice of well-being, and in the spirit of the dictum of my ancestors, may we offer thanksgiving to all the sources of wisdom that hold us up in our mourning.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Reading Torah Through Grief newsletter on March 31, 2023. To sign up to receive this newsletter each week in your inbox, click here.

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