“Thanking G-d for the Good”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, Parashat Vayikra, we read about the sacrificial rite. Toward the middle of the parasha, the Torah, in Leviticus 3:1, introduces the Peace offering, the Sh’lamim. There are actually three kinds of Peace offerings: a Todah, a thanksgiving; Neder, a vow; and N’davah, a freewill offering. Some of the commentaries say that the etymology of the word Sh’lamim, is from the word sha’lem, symbolizing that a person brings a Sh’lamim offering in order to recognize that he is whole. Another origin may be from the word shalom, symbolizing that a person brings a Sh’lamim offering to acknowledge being at peace with oneself.

The famous 19th century commentator on the Torah, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, defines the roles of the various offerings. The Olah, the burnt offering, is brought by a person who seeks to draw closer to G-d, by raising the standard of the holiness of one’s activities. The Mincha, the meal offering, represents the joy and satisfaction that one feels in life when one realizes how much good G-d gives each of us. The Sh’lamim, the Peace offering, is brought by a person who is completely satisfied with life, and feels that nothing is lacking.

Rashi, the Biblical commentator, explains that the Thanksgiving offering is brought whenever a miracle occurs to a person who had experienced a danger: they crossed the sea, traveled through the wilderness, were released from prison, or recovered from an illness. In such instances, says Rashi, we are required to give thanks, as it says in Psalms 107:21, “Let them give thanks to the L-rd for His mercy and for His wonderful works to the children of men.”

Nachmanides, the medieval commentator, emphasizes that life itself, the ordinary daily course of nature, is a Divine miracle. The unusual deliverances and outstanding miracles are there merely to draw our attention to the miracle of existence. “Everything that befalls us in our public and private capacities, is a miracle and pertains in no way to nature and the way of the world.”

For mere mortals, it is not easy to maintain a sense of gratitude for the constant miracles that are part of our everyday existence. To the contrary, we often like to blame the “powers that be” for everything negative or uncomfortable that happens to us. The phrase, “Where was G-d?” was not coined after the Holocaust, it was already recorded 2500 years ago in the book of Malachai 2:17, where the prophet quotes G-d and says: “Ho’gatem Hashem b’div’raychem, v’amartem ba’meh ho’ganu?” You have wearied the L-rd with your words, yet you say: Wherein have we wearied Him? The prophet responds by saying that they have wearied G-d with their constant complaints “A’yayh E-lokay ha’mishpat” Where is the G-d of justice? Whenever calamity strikes large or small, we often look for someone to blame, and more often than not, we blame G-d by saying: “Where was G-d when I needed Him? How could G-d allow this to happen?” While G-d is the First Cause, the Prime Mover, and certainly responsible for everything, much of misfortune and calamity that strikes us is of human origin. We have polluted the rivers and contaminated the lands. We’ve destroyed the ozone layer with our irresponsible behavior. We smoke, we drink, we misbehave, and then we say, “Where was G-d?”

The Talmud tells us that G-d has created a cure for every malady and has given us the resources to cure every disease, but we’ve chosen to divert billions of dollars to develop nuclear arms, and many more billions on entertainment, violence and sex. There are people in our own backyards who are starving, our neighbors are dying of terminal diseases, but we fail to make the association with our profligate behavior. We have the capacity to eradicate those diseases, to eliminate hunger. It’s our choice but we choose to evade our role and our responsibilities.

Over the last one hundred years, the life of the average person in developed countries has been extended by more than 25 years. The average life expectation for men and women is now over 75, approaching 80, and it is not unlikely that people will soon regularly live to 100 and beyond. Why is it that no one says “Where is G-d? I’d like to thank Him! Where is G-d? He gave me an extra 25, 30, 40 years to my life, I’d like to express my gratitude. He gave the doctors the capacity to heal a disease that would have been lethal ten years ago, and I’m here. I’d like to thank Him!”

That’s what the Sh’lamim, the Peace offering sacrifice is all about. We need to express our gratitude to G-d on a regular basis, not just cry out and denounce G-d when things are wrong or uncomfortable.

In 1992, a year after my mother passed away, I wrote an essay elaborating on this idea entitled “Saying ‘Thank You’ for the Good.” I’d like to share this essay with you because I feel that it is just as germain today as it was then and will be tomorrow.

More than a year has passed since my mother, of blessed memory, passed away. Of course, it was not an easy year, but it flew by rapidly.

Many of the laws and customs of aveylut (mourning) had deep impact on me. But, the requirement to say Kaddish with a minyan every morning and evening had a particularly profound impact – throwing my already tumultuous life and schedule into even greater turmoil. There were times when I was delayed on trains and planes, and was certain that I would miss Kaddish. But somehow, I never missed reciting Kaddish even once during the entire year — which is quite a tribute, especially to the New York subway system! Often it required something little short of a miracle, but I made it, and now I can finally take a deep breath, and plod on.

I must admit that saying Kaddish for me was not a terrible inconvenience, since, even before I became a mourner, I regularly attended Shacharit and Mincha services daily, and tried as often as I could to attend Maariv services regularly. I can’t fathom how difficult this new routine must be for those who do not attend minyan regularly. The tensions I experienced, as someone who was used to going to services, were enormous. How overwhelming it must be for someone who is suddenly thrust into this awesome and demanding regimen.

What really amazed me was how casual my attitude toward synagogue attendance became immediately after the first Yahrtzeit. It took less than three weeks for me to miss my first minyan, and while I am sincerely trying not to miss too often, it is very likely that I am going to miss far more frequently than I did during my year of mourning. Yes, I recognize the irony. Now, thank G-d, that everyone is OK, my 88 year-old father is doing well, my wife and children are healthy, my work is fulfilling — now that everything is hunky-dory — I somehow can’t manage to get to synagogue as regularly as I did during my period of mourning. When mother was ill, and after she passed away, I never missed. And now, when I have so much for which to be grateful, I am back to being casual about it! And then when, G-d forbid, tragedy strikes, as it will inevitably, we call out, “O L-rd, O L-rd, why have you forsaken me!”

“Where were you, Buchwald, when everything was OK?”, He may justifiably ask. “How is it that you couldn’t find the time to say ‘Thank you’?”

It’s easy to complain about the bad. It’s far more difficult to say “Thank You” for the good. But to be complete, to be at peace with oneself, one needs to express those thanks much more often than we normally do. That’s the extraordinary concept represented by the offering known as “Sh’lamim.”

May You Be Blessed.