Parashat Tzav: Clean your plate

Of all the sacrifices, why must the one that offers thanks be eaten that day? Why no leftovers?

Shmulik Cohen (photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
Shmulik Cohen
(photo credit: STEVE LINDE)

Why no leftovers? That is the perplexing question.

Amid the thicket of details in Leviticus, certain details allow us a glimpse into the deeper ideals of the sacrifice. One such glimpse is offered in chapter 7, verse 15. The thanksgiving offering “shall be eaten on the day that it is offered; none of it shall be set aside until morning.”

Of all the sacrifices, why must the one that offers thanks be eaten that day? Why no leftovers?

Abravanel has a beautiful answer, one amplified by the Netziv. Since the sacrifice entails a lot of food – not only an animal but four types of bread, and 10 breads of each type, 40 loaves in all, one person could not possibly consume it. Therefore, others will join. The Netziv says it will be a public celebration – and the miracle that occasioned the sacrifice will be publicized.

This is the lesson of “gratitude contagion.” When we hear about someone’s good fortune and see that they are genuinely grateful, it helps us be grateful as well. Perhaps something similar has happened in our lives, and we did not think to feel about it as our compatriot has. Public thanks attunes us to God’s goodness.

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

The Gerrer Rebbe has another answer that touches on gratitude contagion. He teaches that to eat the entire sacrifice in one day suggests full confidence that there will be more the next day. And this is what one should feel about miracles in general.

The thanksgiving offering is given for one who has escaped some danger, for example, or perhaps illness (as is the modern Hagomel blessing), and we learn that miracles are not a single, unrepeatable event. They are the very foundation of our lives. As we say in the Amida, “for your miracles which are daily with us.” By finishing the meal, we declare that we know more miracles will come.

When studying these and other responses, I remembered the well-known plaint of Jewish parents everywhere. When children left food on the plate, we were invariably reminded of people who did not have enough. “Clean your plate” may have been gastronomically unsound advice, but it was morally significant. It meant that by finishing what you had, you recognized that others were in need.

Completing the sacrifice in one day may be a reminder of this truth. Cleaning your plate concludes the act of gratitude, for you realize that not everyone has cause to be so grateful at this moment.

I would also like to suggest one counterintuitive idea about the necessity to finish the sacrifice on the same day. A thanksgiving sacrifice is an acknowledgment that one needs more than one’s own resources in this world. To feel grateful is to feel dependent. Were it not for this beneficence, I would not be here, and I wish to sacrifice to show my gratitude.

Yet the feeling of dependence, although important and surely a part of the religious consciousness, can also be at war with the necessity of taking action on one’s own. It is a delicate balance; God delivered the Israelites, yet they had to march forward into the sea to claim their destiny.

We are given the goods of this world so that we can use them wisely. Perhaps the sacrifice needs both to be offered and to be completed. The one who brings it remains grateful and reliant, but also resourceful and ready.

That may be why, unlike other offerings, the instruction for the thanksgiving offering is given to the offerer, not to the priest. When the shaliah tzibur repeats the Amida, the one prayer the congregation must say on its own is Modim, the prayer for thanks.

Gratitude is not just appreciation, but accountability. Don’t leave it for tomorrow – be both grateful and enterprising today. ■

The writer is Max Webb senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.