(Although the Korban Todah was introduced to us in last week’s sedrah, nevertheless, as an expression of thanks to Hashem for the upcoming wedding of my daughter, im yirtzeh Hashem, I will share some hoda’ah thoughts with you this week. And as they say in Israel, v’itchem haselichah.)
The Midrash in Parshas Tzav extols at length the virtues of bringing a Korban Todah and the very concept of hoda’ah (gratitude). The Midrash, in a short paragraph, sums up its significance in a way. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 9:7) states that in the future, (this may refer to yemos haMashiach or some other period) all korbanos will cease to be brought, except for the Korban Todah and all forms of prayer will cease except for ones of thanksgiving —hoda’ah. Without entering a discussion of the idea of korbanos and tefillos ceasing, the Midrash certainly demonstrates a certain essentiality in the idea of hoda’ah.
One of the ironies of hoda’ah is that the Korban Todah is brought in certain specific situations when a person’s life is considered to have been in danger (e.g., a long ocean or desert journey, a life-threatening illness, captivity) and he or she was saved. Now, on the one hand, this ‘salvation’ is not necessarily brought about by a miraculous occurrence. The situations that call for a Korban Todah happen to be pretty much a part of normal life, as is the yeshu’ah from them. Yet of course, one does not bring a Korban Todah every day. In fact, it is not even clear if one may voluntarily bring a Korban Todah as a korban nedavah if the events enumerated above did not occur.
But don’t our everyday lives contain reasons for hoda’ah? In fact, the Chovos Halevavos points out that we need to be constantly thankful for our existence, for our being created as humans and, of course, the fact that we are Jewish should give pause for reflection and gratitude. So what specifically happens when our lives are in danger, and we emerge safely —especially since we are not talking about open miracles?
The word hoda’ah is usually translated as gratitude or thankfulness. Yet another meaning of the word, which is used quite often, is admission or concession. The question is, are these two meanings connected? Do they converge in some larger conceptual abstraction?
The answer, of course, is that they do.
The Chovos Halevavos writes in his introduction to Sha’ar Avodas Elokim that logic compels a person to accept the service of Hashem upon himself or herself if he or she would merely follow the rules of common sense that dictate that a person is obligated to act favorably towards one who has acted favorably towards him. Being thankful is a way of thinking. The Chovos Halevavos goes on to depict the various ways that people —decent human beings— express gratitude for favors they received. Thus a person, upon reflection, will take this to a higher level and realize that we are surely obliged to be grateful to Hashem for His great goodness towards us. The Chovos Halevavos asks us to consider how Hashem has no iota of self-interest in all that He does for us, and thus is even more ‘deserving’ of our acknowledgement, appreciation, and gratefulness.
It is clear from the Chovos Halevavos that a person is ‘wired’ to feel thankful —to parents, to a superior, to a friend, since he says that that defines a normal, decent, human being. How does that connect to the ‘other’ meaning of hoda’ah —‘admission’?
The answer would seem to be quite clear. We all have egos and a sense of self. And that makes it hard to be grateful! Why? Because we are not talking about courtesy. We are not talking about uttering a lip-service ‘thank you’. We are talking about a deep feeling, from within, that whatever I have accomplished, gained or attained could not have been accomplished, gained or attained through my own efforts alone. I needed help! I needed someone else or something else to make it happen! To enable me to make it happen! Therefore, to acknowledge truly and sincerely that help and to feel that gratitude takes a tremendous amount of self-knowledge coupled with self-effacement. For I must yield to the admission that left to my own resources —I could not have done it! That there is a piece of you as part of my accomplishment! That I was essentially unable on my own to have carried out that which I wanted to.
Now, imagine how that plays out in our relationship with Hashem. It is not for naught that the Chovos Halevavos says that this is the most essential and basic component in our avodas Hashem! For without Hashem we can do nothing! Not only would we not even exist, but any ability we have, whether it be the ability to think, to feel, to plan, to implement, to overcome obstacles, to walk, to decide —everything, or rather nothing, would be possible without Hashem’s enabling, without Hashem’s actively endowing me with the ability to do whatever it is that I would like to do.
And so, certainly gratitude is intertwined with an ‘admission.’ I have to admit that I am not capable. I am not able. I need someone else. Not only do I need —but that which I did is, in reality, the product of not just me —but me AND…
And I always need Hashem, for whatever it is that I decide to do! The ultimate gratitude is the ultimate admission that left to my own devices —I am nothing and can accomplish nothing. And that is an almost-impossible admission. Because I certainly feel as if I used my capabilities, my energies, my intellect —yet I need to acknowledge that it is all a gift from Hashem. (The one possible exception to this is man’s free will, bechirah, and how he uses this faculty. That, and the way it is seemingly an exception to this rule, will, im yirtzeh Hashem, be the subject of a future column.)
IM YIRTZEH HASHEM next week, we will discuss what triggers the Korban Todah if my life is, or should be, a life of gratitude.