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Parashat Tzav: Transforming Sacrfice into Gratitude

The Torah portion known as Tzav continues to describe the order of sacrifices, as previously mentioned in the preceding portion, Vayikra, which was read last week. I would like to address one of these sacrifices today, namely the offering of thanksgiving, also known as korban todah. 

The korban todah was a gratitude offering to God, typically presented by those who had survived a dangerous situation. This practice is the biblical origin of the Birkat HaGomel ceremony still observed in synagogues to this day.


Expressing gratitude can be challenging. For many, gratitude doesn't come naturally; it requires recognizing that some blessings in life come undeservedly.


The significance of this offering is so profound that our sages taught that in the future, all sacrifices will cease, except the offering of thanksgiving. Likewise, all prayers will cease, except the prayer of gratitude. Why is this sacrifice so special?


The Maggid of Dubno used to clarify this with a parable.


Once upon a time, there was a poor and unfortunate tailor living in Poland. During cold, snowy days, he would wander the villages seeking work to feed his family.

On a particularly bitter day, he arrived at the home of a wealthy Jew seeking employment. Moved by the man's plight, the Jew's wife handed him a bag of old clothes to mend.


The tailor noticed that the garments were in good condition, leaving him with little to do. However, upon witnessing the family's generosity and the harsh weather outside, he decided to do something unexpected: he cut the seams of the garments.


When the homeowner saw what he had done, he was about to throw the tailor out. But the tailor, in tears, promised to fix the damage he had caused. After a few hours, all the garments were repaired, and the homeowner, touched, gave the tailor some coins before bidding him farewell. Was the tailor paid for his work? No, as he had created the problem himself and then fixed it.


Similarly, the Maggid of Dubno explains, this is the case with all sacrifices except the korban todah. According to the Midrash, all offerings are meant to rectify something we have damaged ourselves. But the korban todah is different. It is offered without any transgression; it is a pure expression of gratitude. Therefore, in the future, all offerings will cease, except this offering of thanks. Its nature is unique and incomparable: giving simply for the sake of giving.


There is a significant question posed to us by Parshat Tzav today: Given how central sacrifices were to the religious life of Israel in the time of the Temple, how did Judaism survive without them?


One answer to that question is that the prophets, sages, and Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages realized that sacrifices were symbolic representations of processes of the mind, heart, and actions, which could also be expressed in other ways.


Tikkun Olam, Kedushat Hayei HaAdam, and Gemilut Chasadim are precepts that confirm this every moment. We haven't abandoned the past. We still constantly refer to sacrifices in our prayers. But we don't cling recklessly and irresponsibly to the past, nor do we retreat into the irrationality of believing that things will only improve through divine providence.


Our ancestors and relatives thought about the future and created institutions such as the synagogue, houses of study, and schools that managed to maintain and nurture Jewish identity even in the most adverse conditions. Through discussion and consensus, our rituals and traditions have been modified and adapted. I'm not referring specifically to the Conservative Movement, but to Judaism in general.


That's no small achievement. Over time, all the major civilizations in the world have vanished, while Judaism has always survived thanks to its ability to reformulate and adapt. What saved the Jewish people was not just their deep and enduring faith, but their stubborn capacity to never abandon rational thought and, despite their loyalty to the past, to continue planning for the future.


The priests of our people had the responsibility to maintain ritual purity and connection with the divine. Contemporary leaders must promote morality, compassion, and respect for life and nature. This involves cultivating a culture of integrity, service, and solidarity, where every individual feels valued and respected in their uniqueness.


Just as the priests in antiquity were responsible for ensuring that sacrifices were performed correctly and justly, contemporary leaders must ensure the well-being of all members of society, regardless of ethnic origin, religion, or social status, and unequivocally condemn terrorism and hate speech, denouncing them without conditions or speculation, so that their voices are heard.

This is not something happening in our days.


The Haftarah of Tzav, the portion from the book of the Prophets we read this Shabbat after de Torah reading taken from the book of Jeremiah, also offers a relevant perspective on the responsibility of society and its leaders. Jeremiah warns about the consequences of social injustice, corruption, and lack of ethics in leadership. Instead of focusing on external rituals, he emphasizes the importance of justice, mercy, and love for one's neighbor as true expressions of devotion to God.


The message is clear this Shabbat: Rituals are fine, they are an essential part of our tradition, our daily commitment to our Torah and our history, but if we do not include our connection and concern for our environment by taking responsibility for what we can do to improve the lives of those around us, and by maintaining our humility in gratitude for what we are and what we have, as the Korvan Todah did, all the ritual becomes something antiquated, which over time will be seen as outdated and out of fashion.


We must including in our feelings, prayers, and actions the repudiation of terrorist organizations that seek only to prevail in their ways of thinking regardless of the lives of others. To repudiate those who attack us simply for being Jewish and to transmit and teach those who do not understand the reasons for legitimate defense that there can be no coexistence with those who choose to prevail by destroying the lives of those who think differently.


It is our commitment to society, to social justice, and ALSO to the mitzvot that will determine that AM ISRAEL CHAI. That the People of Israel live.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Gustavo Geier


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