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Spreading Positivity

Tzav (Leviticus 6-8 )

by Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman

In a series of fascinating studies, Dr. David DeSteno and colleagues demonstrated that when people feel grateful for receiving a benefit, they are more likely to pay that goodwill forward, either with time or money. As he delineates in his book, Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, this applies not only to reciprocating towards the benefactor of the initial good, but they are even more likely to pay it forward to others.

Additionally, gratitude is contagious. It can spread virally through social spheres, creating an upward, virtuous cycle. Even seeing someone else express gratitude can create a positive emotional momentum, leading to more gratitude, compassion, and kindness.

Detailed in Parshat Tzav are various peace offerings, known as shelamim. As a general rule, these sacrifices were able to be eaten by the one who offered them on the day that it was brought, in addition to the following night and day. The one exception is the thanksgiving offering, known as the toda. The thanksgiving offering was brought when one wanted to extend gratitude and praise to God, generally, although not necessarily, after being saved from a dangerous situation. Unlike the other peace offerings, the thanksgiving offering was only allowed to be eaten the day it was brought and the following night. The leftovers were not allowed to be eaten the subsequent day. Also, unlike the other peace offerings, the thanksgiving offering was also different in that it was required to be accompanied by 40 loaves of bread. Why the differences?

Seforno suggests that the increased amount of food and decreased amount of time to eat incentivized the inviting of guests. Unlike other sacrifices which may be more private in nature, the ideal thanksgiving offering is a public endeavor. The social setting allowed the benefactor of God’s graces to recall the details of God’s wonderous deeds to a larger audience, hence making God’s name great amongst the attendees.

Perhaps, based on Dr. DeSteno’s research, we can suggest that besides for the benefit of creating a context for the spreading the word of God’s beneficence, the public meal provided two other essential functions. First, keeping in mind that inviting guests to a festive meal is itself an act of kindness, the thanksgiving offering is an opportunity to pay the gratitude forward. Not only is the gratitude being acknowledged towards the benefactor (God), it is being used to precipitate doing good for others. In a sense, there is no better way to show gratitude for all that God does for us, than by using His gifts as opportunities to do for others.

Second, while from a certain perspective, a private moment of deep gratitude may be even more powerful and humbling than a public gesture, the public demonstration has an essential social function, serving as a signaling device to others. When we see others perform acts of gratitude, we ourselves get caught up in the positive contagion, and are more likely to act virtuously. The thanksgiving offering needed to be done in public, not just to praise God, which is a worthwhile pursuit on its own, but also to increase moral virtues amongst the participants.

Without the actual sacrifice in contemporary times, it is important to create other opportunities to demonstrate gratitude in public. By making gratitude a social good, we can create an elevating spiral of positive energy that can help propel us forward to continued virtue in service of God and other people.



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