Sunday, April 05, 2009

D'var Tzav, 5769

Dvar Tzav
Rich Furman
Delivered on Shabbat HaGadol, 5769 at Temple Israel, MPLS.

This is the second year running that I have had the privilege of drashing on parshat tzav, and it has afforded me a wonderful opportunity to uphold R. ben Bag Bag's saying "turn it and turn it for everything is in it." Our parsha deals with the Standard Operating Procedures for each of the sacrifices, and while we may not, to borrow the words of the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, expect "the return to a sacrificial system of worship under the sons of Aaron," we owe it to ourselves to seek the lessons that even these passages have to teach.

One of the ways we can learn from these passages is to look at the types of offerings brought brought and why they are brought. I want to focus today on the last of these offerings, the שלמים offerings. שלמים is most often rendered as "peace offering," but the word carries more of a connotation of wholeness or well being. Three types of these well-being offerings are defined for us. The תודה, or thanks offering, the נדר or vow-fulfilling offering, and the נדבה, or voluntary offering. Of these three, the תודה is unique in that it must be eaten the same day it is offered, whereas the נדר and נדבה offerings may be eaten over two days.

Why is it the case that the thanksgiving offering should be consumed in less time than the vow or free will offerings? Rabbi Zelig Pliskin explains this by citing Sforno, who “comments that the purpose of this extremely short time period was to ensure that he would share the bread with others. This would publicize the fortunate event." (Growth Through Torah, p. 244-245) In other words, the speed with which the offering was to be eaten was designed so that the person who brought it would have to share his gratitude with as many people in the community as possible.

We may think we're good at that right? After all, every Friday night, from the bimah, we hear about who's been born, who's becoming bar or bat mitzvah, who's getting married, and who's having an anniversary. But these are all things that happen in the public eye in any case. They are all things which, if we live out our days, will happen to everyone.

The things for which the Talmud teaches that one is supposed to bring the thanksgiving offering are a bit closer to the bone:

Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: There are four [classes of people] who have to offer thanksgiving: those who have crossed the sea, those who have traversed the wilderness, one who has recovered from an illness, and a prisoner who has been set free. (BT 54b)
These things are a little more intimate than our life cycle events - returning safely from a dangerous journey, recovering from illness, release from captivity, all of these entail being able to admit to our community, and therefore to ourselves, that we were in mortal danger, and that were it not for the grace of God, we would not be able to offer thanksgiving.

The sacrifices ceased with the destruction of the Temple, and prayer has replaced them. What prayer is said in the place of the thanksgiving offering? "Rab Judah said: 'Blessed is He who bestows lovingkindnesses'. (ibid)" And in keeping with the idea that this gratitude is to be shared with the community, "Abaye said: And he must utter his thanksgiving in the presence of ten, as it is written: 'Let them exalt Him in the assembly of the people.'(Psalm 107:32)"(ibid).

The prayer that has replaced the thanksgiving offering is called Birkat HaGomel, and it may be found on page 253 of Mishkan Tefillah for Shabbat. What we will see if we look at it is that it is set up as a dialogue between those who are thanking God for delivering them from danger and the Congregation which in turn thanks God for the the good that was done in delivering those members of the Congregation who were in danger. This can be seen in the Hebrew which is perhaps best rendered:

Individual Recites
Blessed are you Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has bestowed every goodness upon us.

Congregation Responds
Amen. May the one who has bestowed every goodness upon you continue to bestow every goodness upon you forever.

I do not know why, in MT’s translation, the congregation’s part is rendered “us” when the Hebrew says “you.”

In explaining why one who returns from the sea should recite Gomel Rab Judah cites Psalm 107:

Whence do we know this of those who cross the sea? Because it is written, “They that go down to the sea in ships these saw the works of the Lord He raised the stormy wind they mounted up to the heaven, they went down to the deeps they reeled to and fro and staggered like a drunken man they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and He brought them out of their distresses.”(ibid.)

This is an easy passage for anyone who has, as my wife and I did Tuesday night, flown into MSP during a snowstorm in a commuter jet. The turbulence at time raised us up and cast us down, and so I will rise, and ask her to rise, and if anyone here has, as the note at the bottom of page 253 says, survived a life challenging situation over the past six months, please feel welcome to rise and join us as we recite Gomel.


Perhaps half the people present rose for Gomel on this prompt. Those standing recited the individual’s portion which, in MT, is couched in the plural. Those who were still sitting responded with a bit of prompting. I enjoined people to not ask those who were bentsching Gomel for details of their situations. It went well. The rabbi indicated to me that he had not known that MT had Gomel; to the best of his knowledge it is the first Reform Siddur to contain it. Another congregant came up to me afterward, volunteered what she had been through to me, and thanked me for giving her the opportunity to bentsch Gomel.

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