Down Payment on a Debt of Gratitude
Down Payment on a Debt of Gratitude
My dad died this past summer. It was a good death. He was ninety-five years old, couldn't see or hear very well, and had a heart condition. But he got up every day, bathed and fed himself, took care of his dog, and stayed busy. Then one morning in July, he woke up and got dressed, had some breakfast, walked his dog, and then came back inside and closed his eyes one last time. No hospitalization, no heroic interventions, no lingering. My dad lived his ninety-five years and then he was done. Not quite Moses's death (undimmed eyes, unabated vigor) but not a bad one either.
My sister, my four brothers, and I descended upon our childhood town of Cincinnati, gathered at a nearby hotel with other family members to meet with rabbinical student Sam Rose, who managed our rather boisterous intake and put together a lovely, meaningful celebration of my dad's life. Our family has known too much tragedy, so we were relieved to be burying such an old man. Blessedly old.
In this week's parashah, Tzav, we read (Leviticus 7:11-12), "This is the ritual of the sacrifice of well-being that one may offer to the Eternal: One who offers it for thanksgiving shall offer, together with the sacrifice of thanksgiving, unleavened cakes with oil mixed in-unleavened wafers spread with oil-and cakes of choice flour with oil mixed in, well soaked."
The sacrifice of well-being.
Most of us have portions of our life for which we are grateful. Whether it's the well-being that comes from an intact family, a job that pays our bills, a bill of good health from our doctor, or a voice that cries out regularly for justice, these are perhaps the kind of catalysts God had in mind when commanding us to perform this ritual offering in the days of old.
Contemporary biblical commentator Nehama Leibowitz noted that the sacrifice of well-being is unusual for having no petition connected to it. The offerer brings a gift, yet asks nothing of God, motivated by ". . . an abundance of joy, of gratitude to God . . . " (Naphtali Herz Weisel, quoted by Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra [Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, n.d.], p. 72).
Gratitude can take time to find its way into the heart. I never thought I was much like my father. Frankly, we saw eye-to-eye on very little for so long. For many years, I felt the right choices in my life would be the opposite of whatever he'd have done. But as I grew older and grew up, I got a good look at this man. He loved his family, did the things he felt were important to care for them and, as a doctor, was a highly respected healer in our community. Over time, I noticed that I too have worked diligently to be a good husband and dad, and while I was the last of my father's half-dozen children who chose not to go into medicine (and as the youngest, the pressure had been formidable), I did select a vocation that tries to provide what people need on their journeys to wholeness. That may not be so far from the healer my dad had been looking for.
The sacrifice of well-being.
Life isn't perfect-not by a long shot. But so much of it is good. Some of it's great. I'm fortunate to have had my dad for fifty-four years. I'm fortunate to have been guided by two parents who taught me to be kind and open. I'm fortunate to have become a parent who seeks and sees those values in my own children. And I have, at least in part, my father to thank for that.
How does one say thank you for such gifts? The ancients may have struggled to answer this question too. Or like us, they may not have asked it. After all, you and I live our busy lives rushing from task to task; even without cell phones or the Internet, our ancestors' dance cards were pretty full too. So, a ritual was devised whereby they could channel this prompting from the heart by bringing an offering to the priest, and opening a portal for the gratitude in their soul.
Today, we bring our sacrifice of well-being to many different sacred altars. At the temple, of course, we bring a prayer of thanksgiving from amidst our sacred community of friends and spiritual neighbors. But we may also offer gratitude by simply saying so or by making a gift oftzedakah to share our good blessing with those for whom blessing is in short supply. Or we may reflect it in how we smile at a passerby, how we greet a client, or even how we process a complaint. The goodnesses we have received can almost always find a way to be passed forward.
These are our sacrifices of well-being.
A long time ago, when I turned eleven or thereabouts, my father presented me with a paperback book collection of maybe six titles. I remember that one of those titles was Heidi, and that I'd thought, "What a goofy gift from a father to his son." It would be several years before I would discover The Call of the Wild among those paperbacks, which became my all-time favorite read. Furthermore, what I hadn't known, and didn't learn until I interviewed my dad a few years ago, was that as a child he had loved novels. He was so taken with his literary idol, O. Henry, that he formally changed his own name from Oscar H. Dreskin to O. Herman Dreskin. And while he never became the writer he'd dreamed of as a kid, he carried that love inside of him all his life and even found a way to share it with his ungrateful son.
A sacrifice of well-being.
This past Hanukkah, I presented my own son, Aiden, with a leather-bound copy of The Call of the Wild. Aiden loves a great story, and he knows that I too love a great story. Now he also knows that his grandpa loved a great story too. This is my sacrifice of well-being: to thank God for the blessing of a father who was a good man, and who shaped his son into a dad who could help his own children become the kind of people who are regarded in their communities as my father, Dr. O. Herman Dreskin, a healer, had been regarded in his.
Zecher tzadik livrachah... may the memory of our righteous ones inspire the sacrifice of well-being many, many times over.
Rabbi Billy Dreskin is a rabbi at Woodlands Community Temple near White Plains, New York. You can contact him at RabbiBillyDreskin@gmail.com .
Rabbi Billy Dreskin provides a heartfelt tribute to his father and the many sacrifices of well-being that his father offered to him. He reminds us that often we forget to be thankful for the things in our life, even when we have difficulty seeing their value or take them for granted. It compels us to recognize the people we love and the wonderful occurrences of life as miracles.
Our Torah portion commands us to eat the sacrifice of well-being on the day in which it is offered. We read (Leviticus 7:15), "And the flesh of the thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being shall be eaten on the day that it is offered; none of it shall be set aside until morning." The commentators wonder why the Torah requires that we eat the sacrifice of well-being on the day in which it is offered. Isaac Abravanel, a great biblical commentator and statesman who lived in Spain, Portugal, and Italy from 1437-1508, argues that the sacrifice symbolizes a miracle in the life of the one who brings it. If the donor must consume it in a single day, then there will be a great public meal, publicizing the miracle. And we should expect that there is new miracle each day in our life (Yitzhak Meir Alter of Ger).
By opening our hearts to gratitude, we allow ourselves to explore the miracles in our everyday lives. Through prayer, study, exercise, and community, we find a deep sense of spirituality and thanksgiving. The Sages of the past teach us that "In time to come, there will be no sacrifices except for the offering of thanksgiving, and there will be no prayers except for prayers of thanksgiving" (Vayikra Rabbah 9:7). By offering a sacrifice of well-being, we are given a glimpse of eternity, as we thank God for the wonderful miracles that occur in our lives.
Rabbi Daniel A. Septimus is the associate rabbi and director of congregational learning at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in the greater Seattle, Washington.
Tzav, Leviticus 6:1–8:36
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 781–798; Revised Edition, pp. 686–700;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 593–614