The Temple was not a ‘nice’ place to be. It was a bloody and smelly place, not the place for the squeamish, blood was everywhere. There were burning corpses of animals already lifted up and offered as sacrifices to G-d, their blood draining away into the gullies and drains around the altar. Blood, and the sacrifices generally, were core to the daily work in the Mishkan and later Temple. Sacrifices have a core function in Judaism, and that is to remind us of something profound: the death of the innocent, the substitution of the guilty by a living creature who didn’t deserve to die. The continual exposure to blood and the demise of innocent life was meant to show a Torah truth to Israel that we sometimes fail even now to grasp: sin causes death.
Reading the first sections of Leviticus/Vayikra it can feel like we’re wading through lists of offerings that have no modern equivalent, or that seem just ancient and irrelevant to us today. Frankly, they may even seem boring and we quickly skip through to find something more ‘interesting’. Such a one however would not be blessed with the deeper understanding reserved for those who diligently seek G-d and don’t give up so easily.
In particular there is one offering amongst all the rest in this portion that is of interest: the zevach todah, the Thanksgiving offering. We are commanded to offer this, so it is assumed you will have something to be thankful for! The Thanksgiving offering belongs to the group of offerings known as the Peace Offerings. It is similar to the Peace Offering but changes them slightly, enforcing the eating of it in one day rather than three. The elements include, amongst others, unleavened bread.
Rabbi Elie Munk in his commentaries draws upon Psalm 107 for the reasons why and when to bring this offering. The Psalm, so it is said, was used at the times someone brought this offering, and it specifically talks about surviving great danger, receiving miraculous intervention and recovering health. Of interest is the also the reason that one should bring a Thanksgiving offering if you had been captive and had now been set free. Apparently, this was brought not by someone who merely felt gratitude, but rather who had avoided an impending tragedy, dreadful situation or judgement and had been saved out of it.
The Thanksgiving offering involved you giving thanks to G-d for His intervention, or more importantly, also what you had been delivered out of. The concepts that grow organically with this involve therefore the thankfulness one feels after being forgiven and restored to fellowship again. Indeed, we could go further and say that true thankfulness stems from knowing forgiveness and restitution.
Already we can see that just saying ‘thanks’ is utterly inadequate. It says volumes about our society that even a cheap ‘thanks’ is so infrequently heard today. But the words we say are cheap and do not in any case reveal the true depth of feeling the one offering thanks has. In Judaism thanks is shown not just said. Actions of thanks, as in the offering here, speak to one’s true heart attitude and relationship with the one offering the forgiveness. Offerings, like this one, are not cheap. They cost, it involves the death of an animal which is then eaten in celebration of the deliverance and release. The offering, although commanded when one wants to give thanks, is voluntary. It has to be from a willing and truly grateful heart, something not forced but genuine. Yet a command it is, obedience has to be mixed with genuine volition and emotional expression.
A life lived in ungratefulness denies the very real blessings of G-d; it is tantamount to denying Him from whom all good things come. Being grateful actually places you into a submitted relationship with the G-d who provides, a relationship of giver and receiver, a relationship founded on the goodness of G-d and His mercy and grace. This is not a case of standing before G-d and saying, ‘I deserve this because I did so and so’, this offering is from an awareness that G-d as sovereign has given, blessed and acted or intervened on my behalf. Thankfulness restores a relationship out of balance because you have to humble yourself before the One whose love and generosity stretch far beyond your own and from whom you receive unwarranted good things.
Thanksgiving says you have a healthy relationship with G-d. If you know that being thankful and showing it is not large in your life, it is time for a spiritual check up. Only someone who ‘gives thanks in everything’ truly knows who G-d is, and who they are.