Mass gratitute: Parshat Tzav – Shabbat Hagadol

A person who was saved out of the grasp of danger feels a deep need to share his feelings of gratitude with those around him.

MAN HOLDS lamb at  reenactment of Passover sacrifice 370 (photo credit: Association of Temple Organizations)
MAN HOLDS lamb at reenactment of Passover sacrifice 370
(photo credit: Association of Temple Organizations)
Among the many details regarding the laws of sacrifices that Parshat Tzav deals with is one sacrifice that is still significant for us today, as members of the Jewish nation who have lived for many years without a Temple or sacrifices.
A person who was in a dangerous situation and was saved from it, such as someone who was dangerously ill and recovered, or an innocent person who was imprisoned and released, must – as is taught in our parasha – bring a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Temple.
This sacrifice is unique in that it includes a tremendous amount of bread – 40 large loaves – to be eaten by the person who experienced the miracle. He must eat all these loaves within a short period of time: by midnight of the night after bringing the sacrifice.
If we assume that the person brought the thanksgiving sacrifice in the morning of that day, then he would have only about 16 hours to eat this huge amount of bread.
Of course, a person cannot eat such an amount in such a short time, and therefore he is allowed to invite anyone he wants to eat the bread with him, as long as all the loaves are eaten by midnight.
What is the purpose of this massive feast? And why is it connected to the thanksgiving sacrifice and not with any other kind of sacrifice? Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv), who was among the greatest of Torah scholars in the previous century and the Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin in Russia, provides us with an explanation that teaches us the value of thanksgiving.
When a person experiences a miracle – he was saved from death or from some other immediate danger – he is full of gratitude to God. It could be that he had already despaired from his situation and saw in his mind his impending death. Now that he has been rescued from the danger, recovered or released, he expresses his gratitude by bringing the thanksgiving sacrifice to the Temple.
But this is not enough. A person who was saved out of the grasp of danger feels a deep need to share his feelings of gratitude with those around him. We are all familiar with this phenomenon.
When a person is saved from a great danger, such as a terrorist attack or a grave illness, he is not satisfied with quietly expressing the thanks and wonder that fill his heart; he feels the need to share them with his acquaintances and sometimes even with those with whom he is not acquainted.
Sometimes in these cases, a person even makes a great effort to reach the media and share with the world the miracle that he experienced. This is a natural, familiar and even healthy phenomenon, which benefits the person himself and those around him who share in the miracle that he experienced.
The Torah recognizes this healthy need and provides a manner of expression through the large amount of bread that comes with the thanksgiving sacrifice.
This person, who has just left the Temple holding 40 large loaves of bread which need to be eaten within the next several hours, turns to his acquaintances – and if he has none in Jerusalem, he even turns to strangers – and asks them to join him in eating the bread. Of course, these people will ask him why he is celebrating, what happened that caused him to host this feast. And he will answer them by telling the story of this wonderful miracle that happened to him and the danger from which he was saved.
Through these loaves of bread, the Torah brings the person’s feelings of gratitude to a peak. By sharing his private miracle with great publicity, the person is giving the utmost expression to his feelings and the transcendent sense that he was saved from danger. Thus, many other people will learn of the goodness of God, who supervises man and helps him in his time of need, and will also learn to turn to God in times of distress and ask for salvation.
Today, when the Temple does not exist, a person who was in danger and was rescued recites before a quorum (usually in the synagogue during the Torah reading) the blessing of, “Blessed are Thou... Who bestows good to sinners, even as He has bestowed to me every good.” It is also customary to hold a “thanksgiving feast” and share with family and friends the story of the miracle, just as was done by the person who brought the thanksgiving sacrifice with the many loaves of bread.
This Shabbat, adjacent to the holiday of Passover, is called Shabbat Hagadol – the Great Shabbat. This name was given to the Shabbat before Passover because of the great miracle that occurred during that Shabbat when our forefathers were in Egypt, just days before their final liberation and exodus to freedom.
On the night before the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites celebrated the first Passover by eating the Passover sacrifice. This sacrifice was a roasted lamb brought ceremoniously to the family table on the evening of the holiday. But while we may think today that eating the Passover Seder is a festive event and even one that whets the appetite, about 3,300 years ago this eating came with no small amount of fear. The nation of Israel was not yet liberated from the chains of Egyptian slavery. They were living in a land that was full of pagan worshipers – whose main symbol was a lamb.
The children of Israel had received a directive from Moses to take a lamb for every family a few days before the holiday and slaughter it and eat it on the evening of the holiday. They feared that their Egyptian neighbors would not look kindly upon the slaughtering and festive eating of a lamb, and the fear of the Egyptians’ wrath deterred them from fulfilling the commandment.
But the Jewish nation courageously withstood this trial, overcame their fear and ate the Pascal lamb. And, to everyone’s surprise, their pagangod worshiping neighbors saw the Jews slaughtering, roasting and eating the lambs and did not react with anger and violence after all.
This miracle was the opening act of a wondrous chain of miracles that occurred during the exodus from Egypt. In its memory, the Shabbat adjacent to Passover is called Shabbat Hagadol.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.