Bitter Herbs, Grateful People

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While most of the people I encounter this time of year are excited for Pesach, too many confuse eating Marror, bitter herbs on Pesach, with being bitter people about Pesach.  Some complain about having to host family, others are negative about going to family, and there are those that even complain about how much work it takes to pack and go to a hotel for Pesach. How quickly we all forget…


Our Parsha includes the guidelines to bringing a Korban Todah, a thanksgiving offering.  Our rabbis list four instances in which a person should bring this sacrifice: when he has traveled overseas; when he has traveled through the desert; when he has been released from prison; when he has been cured of an illness. Rabbeinu Bechayei adds that all instances of joy, simchas, milestones, successes, are reason for bringing a Korban Todah.


Each day we recite מִזְמוֹר לְתוֹדָה הָרִיעוּ לַה' כָּל הָאָרֶץ, "A song of thanksgiving; call out to ה', everyone on earth." As the name suggests, this paragraph of Tehillim was sung by the Leviim as an accompaniment to a Korban Todah. Indeed, since this mizmor is associated with a korban, it has become our practice to stand while reciting it.


Why does the mizmor begin with one's personal gratitude, then go on to say הָרִיעוּ לַה' כָּל הָאָרֶץ, "Call out to ה', everyone on earth." Why do all of earth's inhabitants have to join in gratitude? Why does the whole world have to express gratitude because an individual had something good happen to them?


Rav Chaim Kanievsky zt”l answered this question with a story: One day after davening in Bnei Brak, one of the attendees took out a tablecloth from a bag and spread it on the table. He then placed cake and whiskey on the table and invited everyone in shul to share in his good fortune. Apparently, the day before he had been crossing the highway, and was hit by a car. He was thrown up into the air and landed on his side, but, other than a few slight bruises and a soiled suit, he was fine. He provided cake and whiskey, so that the participants would all have a l’chaim in honor of the miracle he had experienced.


The next day, following Shacharis, another member of the shul took out a small tablecloth, placed it on a table, and proceeded to place cake and whiskey on the table. He invited everyone to share. "What happened to you?" they asked. "Perhaps you were also hit by a car?" "No," he answered. "Nothing of the sort. It is just that yesterday when I heard that fellow relate how he miraculously escaped serious injury, it dawned on me that I have been crossing that highway for the last 20 years, at the exact same place - and nothing has ever happened to me! Is that not a miracle? I therefore want to thank Hashem publicly for all of His graciousness to me!"


Rav Chaim explained, "מזמור לתודה refers to one's personal deliverance from ‘what might have been.’ הָרִיעוּ לַה' כָּל הָאָרֶץ, seeing another person pay gratitude to Hashem should spur one to introspect and realize how much he, too, owes Hashem. True, he may not have experienced any misfortune, but that in itself is a miracle!" We cannot take our good fortune for granted. It is all a gift from Above.  (Rav Chaim’s own son Shlomo was hit by a car when he was six years old and almost didn’t survive.  Perhaps that miracle inspired this insight.)


Pesach is about many themes including freedom, liberty, responsibility, and nationhood. But at its core, Pesach is about gratitude, it is the Torah’s version of Thanksgiving dinner.


The Abarbanel in his Haggadah addresses the questions of Mah Nishtana and zeroes in on the specific question of why on all other nights we eat chametz and matzah and on this night we only eat matzah.  He asks, do we really eat both chametz and matzah the rest of the year? In our experience, most people are all-in on chametz 51 weeks out of the year and barely tolerate matzah for one week, but “chametz and matzah” the whole year?  The Abarbanel explains that to understand the Mah Nishtana questions you need to understand where they are coming from.  All the questions revolve around the Korban Pesach. This korban, he suggests, is essentially a Korban Todah, a thanksgiving offering. 


One was obligated to bring this gratitude korban if they crossed the sea or the desert, was healed from illness or released from captivity. In the Pesach narrative, we fulfilled all four criteria, obligating us collectively to pause and express our profound gratitude. The meat and breads that were to beaten as part of the Korban Todah may not be left over until the next morning and the same is true of the Korban Pesach.  The Todah is classified as a Korban Shelamim and so is the Korban Pesach.  The Todah reflects the gratitude of the individual and the Pesach is a communal gratitude, the appreciation of a nation and a people that have made it to the other side. 


But here is the thing. Normally, as our Parsha explains, a Korban Todah is brought with 40 loaves, 30 of which are matzah and 10 of which are chametz.  This is the question of the child who wonders, mah nishtana: Why, when we normally express gratitude, do we do it with chametz and matzah and yet, tonight, our gathering for gratitude has only matzah, no chametz? 


For the Abarbanel, the connection between Pesach, seder night, and gratitude are so obvious, so clear, so deep and so ingrained, that a young child is stimulated to ask why the Pesach gratitude is different than our normal gratitude. 


We no longer have a Beis HaMikdash, we don’t offer a Korban Pesach or a Korban Todah, but gratitude remains our avodah, the effort, exercise and goal of the night.  It is a night of hoda’ah, an evening of Hallel, a declaration of dayeinu, all introduced with the acknowledgement that שהחיינו וקיימנו והגיינו לזמן הזה, what a miracle that we simply have merited to be alive, to be here, to be together for Pesach.  


Countless studies show that gratitude is good for us in many ways. Studies show that that it strengthens our immune systems, helps us sleep better, reduces stress and depression, and improves relationships. What they also show is that to gain those benefits, one must do more than just feel grateful, one has to express it and show it. The word ‘thanksgiving’ means giving of thanks, an action, not just a thought or feeling.


In addition to the Hallel recited at the Seder, many have the custom of saying Hallel at the end of Maariv in Shul.  Why say Hallel twice in one night? The Imrei Chaim, Rav Chaim Meir Hager of Vizhnitz, says the Hallel we say in shul is for the Hallel we will say at the Seder table.  When davening ends, we are overwhelmed with gratitude, joy and appreciation that we have a home to go to, a seder table waiting, a family to spend the evening with, and that we can celebrate our freedom and so we say Hallel about the fact that we will say Hallel. 


It sounds obvious, but a survey showed that only 52% of women and 44% of men express gratitude on a regular basis.  If you feel and demonstrate gratitude, that alone is a reason to be grateful.  We have a similar idea in Shemonei Esrei.  We say, Modim anachnu lach, we are so grateful to you Hashem…al she’anachnu modim lach, for the fact that we can be grateful to you. 


It is just a few years ago that we spent a difficult and memorable pandemic Pesach divided, distanced, and disoriented.  Like the man who realized the miracle of simply successfully crossing the highway, we who lived through that time must never take Pesach with family, friends, and festivity for granted again.