Friday, March 11, 2011

Miracles and Thanksgiving (Portion Tzav)

Amongst the many sacrificial offerings described in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, we find a detailed description of the todah—the offering of thanksgiving. This offering is brought by individuals as an expression of gratitude. Rashi suggests that appropriate occasions for the todah include safe passage through a difficult sea or desert journey, release from imprisonment or captivity, and recovery from a severe illness. Today, when we no longer bring sacrifices, we mark such passages with our modern equivalent, the gomel blessing, which is a public, verbal expression of thanksgiving, made during the synagogue service on Shabbat.

One of the great nineteenth century Hasidic teachers, Rebbe Yitzchak Meir Alter of Ger, comments on an interesting detail in Torah’s description of this thanksgiving offering, namely that it must be consumed on the same day that it is sacrificed (see Leviticus 7:15). In his interpretation, the Gerer Rebbe suggests: We must have confidence that teach new day will produce its own miracle. Therefore, the feast celebrating a miraculous event should be confined to one day and not extended into the next. Tomorrow will bring its own miracle.

I am struck by the challenge of reconciling this suggestion with an important teaching from the Talmud, which instructs us, simply: “Do not rely on miracles.”
In this passage, the Rabbis show their wariness of relaxing our human efforts in the hope that God will miraculously provide. We must, for instance, do tzedakah and feed the hungry, rather than praying for a miracle from God that will shower down food for all who need.

So how do we live with confidence that each new day will provide its own miracle while concurrently avoiding the temptation to rely on miracles?

For me, the answer lies in how we define the word “miracle.” If we use the term to refer to giant, showy events that contradict the usual laws of nature (think: parting of the Red Sea) , then it is wrong to depend on—or even expect—miracles. But if we see the miraculous in more ordinary things, and recognize that we are partners with God in the making of many of these smaller miracles, then we can both expect and create such events. To return to my earlier example, while we cannot expect God to feed the hungry, we can give thanks for the miracle of growing things—and then share our bounty with those in need.

In a passage from the siddur, we give thanks for God’s miracles which are with us “morning, noon, and night.” Each one should be fully enjoyed as it happens, with faith and confidence that more will follow—if we are willing to do our part in working for justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

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