I THANK THEREFORE I AM
In this week's Torah portion we learn about the korban todah, the thanksgiving offering that was brought in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple (Leviticus 7:12). The Talmud states, "Rabbi Yehudah said that four people are obligated to give thanks: Sea voyagers, desert travelers, one who has recovered from an illness; and one who was set free from prison [which were all threatening situations in Talmudic times]" (Tractate Berachot 54b).
In this week's Torah portion we learn about the korban todah, the thanksgiving offering that was brought in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple (Leviticus 7:12). The Talmud states, "Rabbi Yehudah said that four people are obligated to give thanks: Sea voyagers, desert travelers, one who has recovered from an illness; and one who was set free from prison [which were all threatening situations in Talmudic times]" (Tractate Berachot 54b). When a Jew is delivered from a life-threatening situation, he owes gratitude to Hashem. We maintain this practice today, despite the absence of the holy Temple, by reciting the blessing called Birkat HaGomel. It is instinctive to feel gratitude towards Hashem for saving one's life. However, what we tend to forget is that it was Hashem who created the dangerous situation in the first place. Had it not been part of Hashem's master plan, our lives would have continued to flow smoothly without incident. Thus, it makes sense that if we thank Hashem for the outcome, then we should also thank Him for the steps leading up to that outcome.
The Talmud also states that "all that the Merciful One does is for good" (ibid. 60b). Although, in our mortal eyes a situation appears unjust, it is none other than the greatest good that it could possibly be, since it is derived directly from Hashem, who is ultimately the source of all good. Furthermore, the Talmud states that "one is obligated to make a blessing on a bad happening in the same manner that he makes a blessing for the good" (ibid. 54a).
Thus, one who is freed from jail expresses his gratefulness not only for his liberation, but also for the very incarceration itself. One who fell ill and recovered, acknowledges Hashem for his sickness as well as his health. Many benefits may be derived from difficult times. One may be inspired to take stock of his life and make amends. One might become humbled, as one realizes that one's time here is limited. One could gain a greater and more accurate appreciation for one's fellow man, as one is reduced to the state of complete dependence, unable to take care of oneself. Additionally, as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20; surely we have all had negative experiences that later turn into positive educational life-experiences. However, if we truly believe that everything that occurs in this world is the result of Divine providence, then it is hard to understand why we should thank Hashem for saving us from misfortune, since He Himself caused that misfortune. Would we thank someone for paying our medical bills if we fell into a concealed trap that he had left in a public thoroughfare?
One answer is that we have chosen the wrong analogy to explain this complex philosophical idea. Consider an orthopedic doctor who notices a person walking in a manner that is symptomatic of a crippling bone disease. The doctor knows that his condition can only be cured if the bones are broken and reset properly before the disease progresses to the point of no return. Realizing that the patient's walk reveals that not too much time is left before his condition is irreversible, the surgeon takes an iron pole and swiftly breaks both of his legs and then proceeds to set them and nurture the patient back to health. In this instance the surgeon deserves thanks both for breaking and setting the legs. If he had not broken the individual's legs, the individual might never be cured from the crippling bone disease.
So, too, when we cause ourselves spiritual illnesses because of our sins and shortcomings, Hashem brings misfortune and calamity to atone and correct the situation. Thus, our gratitude for the salvation can only be significant if it includes a confession that the misfortune and calamity were also deserved. Full, uninhibited thanksgiving requires both confession of the justice of the misfortune and admission that the salvation was undeserved.
With this in mind, we can now begin to appreciate what we read in the Passover Haggadah. The Talmud states: "We begin [the Haggadah] with disgrace, and conclude with greatness. What is 'with disgrace?' Rav said: 'At first our forefathers were idolaters'; And Shmuel said: 'We were slaves'." (Tractate Pesachim 116a).
At our Passover seder we fulfill both opinions. We commence by reliving the slavery in Egypt; we depict Pharaoh commanding his people to kill every male baby; we relate how our ancestors were tortured and whipped to perform the most inhumane, degrading acts imaginable. We dip a vegetable into salt water to remind us of the tears we wept. We eat marror, an echo of the bitterness; and only then do we re-experience the exodus, a supernatural event surpassed only by the giving of the Torah in its magnificence. In the next stage of the Haggadah, we travel earlier in history to the antecedents of Abraham, who were for the most part steeped in idol worship. We then trace the path of our destiny until Hashem redeemed our collective soul, and we emerged as His chosen nation. Why is it necessary to stress the disgrace of our beginnings? Is this not a night of thanksgiving?
The Maharal, one of the seminal figures of Jewish thought of the last five centuries, explains that in order to truly appreciate the freedom, one must first have an accurate picture and feeling of the suffering. However, in light of the above, a new understanding may be presented. We thank Hashem for the slavery in and of its own, for that too was for the ultimate good. For if not for the Egyptian enslavement and torture, we would not be a Jewish nation as we are today. We, as a nation, were born of the "labor pains" of 210 years in Egypt. That suffering was necessary to purify us, to prepare us for our long mission here on this planet. The distress was absolutely vital; and we are literally the fruits of that labor. Just as a mother would never give back the child she so lovingly and uncomfortably carried for nine months, and for whose sake she willingly endured the most painful experience (or so I have been told) known to Mankind (or Womankind), so too was it with our ordeal in Egypt. Hashem had to extricate us from Egypt, "a nation from within another nation," (Deuteronomy 4:34), to give birth to His cherished Jewish nation.
When the child will ask, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The answer is not only that on this night we became free. It must begin with our "disgrace" 'we were slaves, and for that we owe thanks. Every experience one has in life is an essential part of who they are and who they ultimately become. All of us have many difficult personal questions such as: "Why did Hashem have to make me with this personality? Why was I born into such a family? How come others advance so quickly and easily?" Let's be honest 'without my particular background, without my specific upbringing, without my unique collection of life-experiences and the challenges that I have had to overcome, I would not be me. I am a product of my history. Only Hashem knows how every diminutive detail of that history is a necessary piece of the puzzle that is me. As the United States army advertises: "Be all that you can be!" Not someone else 'just you! No matter what background you may have, you have been specifically provided with all the tools necessary to perform your unique task here in this world.
Yoel Feiler, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a senior at Yeshiva University in New York.
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