The Hebrew word “semikhah” in various forms alludes to drawing close, leaning into or supporting another, or laying on of hands. In that purposeful contact there is a transfer of energy and the establishment of connection between two living beings. When Moses lays hands on Joshua, he confers spiritual power, ordaining Joshua as his successor. Like one candle lighting another, there is no sense of diminishment in the power of Moses as he ordains Joshua.
At other times, however, the practice of semikhah (or the transitive hasmakhah) is understood to transfer a quality from one being to another. This week we read that the priest is to lay hands on the burnt offering, “that it may be acceptable on his behalf, in expiation for him” (Lev. 1:4, trans. NJPS). How exactly does this work? It seems from another context, Lev. 16:21, that physical contact was not the only component of the ritual. There was also a spoken intention, a confession of sin, that effected the transfer of negative energy, allowing for the priest and the community that he served to achieve atonement.
This brings us to the role of confession in the ritual offering. One would expect to find this verbal pairing only with regard to the hattat, or purification offering (and the similar asham). After all, the other sacrifices such as olah and minhah are about dedication, while the shelamim are about thanksgiving. For such offerings it would seem that confession is inappropriate. And yet, our text about the burnt offering implies a confession even if it is not explicit. Moreover, in Second Chronicles 30:22, we are told that in the days of King Hezekiah the Levites offered sacrifices of well-being (shelamim) and “confessed to the Lord.” Maimonides understands this not to be so much a confession (for wrong doing) but rather an expression of praise. But it is the same word!
Adding to the confusion, Psalm 100, “a Psalm of thanksgiving” (מזמור לתודה) is clearly a poem of gratitude, and yet here too the word for “thanksgiving” is the same root used for “confession.” Is there perhaps a link between the two types of statement?
My teacher and friend Rabbi Eliezer Diamond suggested that when the root ודה/ vadah is used in the sense of expiation it acknowledges something about oneself. When it is used in the sense of praise or gratitude, it is more extroverted, focusing on another person or on God. I think this is true. Perhaps, however, the similarity of the two senses also indicates an erosion of boundaries between self and other. The physical contact of semikhah, and the verbal expressions of confession and gratitude acknowledge how intertwined we are with one another. Judah’s statement about his father’s connection to Benjamin, v’nafsho keshurah l’nafsho (his life is connected to his life), is not a unique phenomenon, but a common one when people feel responsible for one another. Whether the occasion calls for apology or praise, the essential act is an acknowledgement of the powerful bonds that tie us together.
Our rabbis say (in many places, but see Vayikra Rabba, Emor 27:12) that in the future all sacrifices will be canceled except for the sacrifice of thanksgiving, the todah. It could be that gratitude is a spiritual state that will exist even in a redeemed world where we no longer must purify ourselves for misconduct. But perhaps a second sense is that of interconnection. Some might imagine redemption as a state of absolute independence, where each person is self-sufficient. That is not, however, a vision that I can endorse. Redemption will become apparent when we recognize how dependent we are on each other—to support us in sorrow, to hug us in celebration, to witness our progress through life. Physical contact paired with verbal statements of praise, of apology, of gratitude—these are the markers of a redeemed state of being. (This brings to mind the old story of heaven and hell being the same scenario—people seated at a banquet with their arms locked at the elbow. For the selfish it is hell, but for those willing to feed each other, it is indeed heaven).
As we approach Pesah, isolated in our various pods, deprived of physical proximity and contact with so many people in our lives, let us make extra effort to give “Todah,” expressions of sympathy, support, apology when needed, and always gratitude for the gift of each other. Next Shabbat we will conclude the haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol with the image of Elijah restoring the hearts of the generations to each other. This is a vision of redemption for which we can all work and pray.
ויקרא פרשת ויקרא פרק א פסוק ד, ד
(ד) וְסָמַךְ יָדוֹ עַל רֹאשׁ הָעֹלָה וְנִרְצָה לוֹ לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו:
ויקרא פרשת אחרי מות פרק טז פסוק כא, כא
(כא) וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת שְׁתֵּי ידו יָדָיו עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר הַחַי וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת כָּל עֲוֹנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת כָּל פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל חַטֹּאתָם וְנָתַן אֹתָם עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר וְשִׁלַּח בְּיַד אִישׁ עִתִּי הַמִּדְבָּרָה:
דברי הימים ב פרק ל פסוק כב
וַיְדַבֵּר יְחִזְקִיָּהוּ עַל לֵב כָּל הַלְוִיִּם הַמַּשְׂכִּילִים שֵׂכֶל טוֹב לַיקֹוָק וַיֹּאכְלוּ אֶת הַמּוֹעֵד שִׁבְעַת הַיָּמִים מְזַבְּחִים זִבְחֵי שְׁלָמִים וּמִתְוַדִּים לַיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיהֶם:
רמב“ם הלכות מעשה הקרבנות פרק ג הלכה טו
כיצד מתודה אומר חטאתי עויתי פשעתי ועשיתי כך וכך וחזרתי בתשובה לפניך וזו כפרתי, היה הקרבן שלמים סומך בכל מקום שירצה מן העזרה במקום שחיטה, ויראה לי שאינו מתודה על השלמים אבל אומר דברי שבח.
תהלים פרק ק, א-ה
(א) מִזְמוֹר לְתוֹדָה הָרִיעוּ לַיקֹוָק כָּל הָאָרֶץ: (ב) עִבְדוּ אֶת יְקֹוָק בְּשִׂמְחָה בֹּאוּ לְפָנָיו בִּרְנָנָה: (ג) דְּעוּ כִּי יְקֹוָק הוּא אֱלֹהִים הוּא עָשָׂנוּ ולא וְלוֹ אֲנַחְנוּ עַמּוֹ וְצֹאן מַרְעִיתוֹ: (ד) בֹּאוּ שְׁעָרָיו בְּתוֹדָה חֲצֵרֹתָיו בִּתְהִלָּה הוֹדוּ לוֹ בָּרֲכוּ שְׁמוֹ: (ה) כִּי טוֹב יְקֹוָק לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ וְעַד דֹּר וָדֹר אֱמוּנָתוֹ:
ויקרא רבה (מרגליות) פרשת אמור פרשה כז
[יב] וכי תזבחו זבח תודה (ויקרא כב, כט). ר’ פינחס ור’ לוי ור’ יוחנן בש’ ר’ מנחם דגליא. לעתיד לבוא כל הקרבנות בטילין וקרבן תודה אינו בטל לעולם. כל ההודיות בטילין והודיית תודה אינה בטלה לעולם.