In Parshas Tzav we read about the korban todah, the thanksgiving offering. The commentaries (Rashi, Rashbam) explain that this offering was brought by someone who had been saved from danger, especially referring to the four cases enumerated by the Talmud (Brachos 54b), based upon Psalms 107, in which a person "needs to give thanks." These are: one who has traveled by sea, one who traveled through a desert, one who was released from prison, and one who has recovered from illness. (Although the Talmud is speaking there of birkas hagomel, i.e. publicly reciting the blessing of thanksgiving, Rashi understands these categories to apply to the korban torah as well, citing the verse in Psalm 107, "and they shall slaughter thanksgiving offerings." Rashi presumably holds like the Tosafos HaRosh (Brachos 54b) that birkas hagomel is itself based upon the korban todah.)
Anytime we give thanks to God for saving us from a difficulty or a danger, we face an obvious question. Our thanks to God is based upon the premise that God is almighty, and that He controls all that happens in our lives and in the world as a whole. However, if God is indeed the one who controls all that happens in our lives, then it was He who put us into the bad situation in the first place! If so, why are giving thanks to God for saving us from troubles that He caused?
If any holiday embodies this paradox, it is Pesach! Pesach is a holiday devoted to giving thanks to God for freeing us from the slavery and oppression we experienced in Egypt. The theme of gratitude is basic to the entire seder night; ”לפיכך אנחנו חיבים להודות וכו” - "Therefore, [we conclude the narrative of the Exodus,] we are obligated to give thanks...”. Yet, from the very beginning of Jewish history, God told Abraham that his descendants would be oppressed in a foreign land, and God went to great efforts to force the family of Jacob to move down to Egypt. The slavery in Egypt was God’s plan from the beginning, and all the suffering that the Jewish people endured there can be placed at His feet. Why then are we giving thanks to God for saving us from Egypt, when He is the one who put us there in the first place?
This question is asked by the Dubna Maggid (Rabbi Yakov Kranz, d.1804) early on in his commentary on the Hagada. He illustrates the question with an analogy. If a person falls ill, or is injured, and a doctor treats his illness and cures him, then it is obvious that the patient must express gratitude towards the doctor. But if the doctor was the one who injured him in the first place, then there is little gratitude due to him. The patient would have been better off if the doctor had left alone to begin with!
In the end, therefore, the Dubno Maggid explains that we have to recognize that when we give thanks to God for our salvation, we are not only thanking Him for saving us from our troubles, we are also thanking Him for the troubles themselves. For we must understand that everything that God brings upon us is ultimately for our benefit, and we must give thanks to Him for the bad as well as the good, as the Talmud (Brachos 54a) states, “A person is obligated to bless God for the bad, just as he blesses God for the good.”
The suffering we endured in Egypt was necessary to prepare us to be the “kingdom of priests and holy nation” that would receive the Torah. The lessons we learned in the “iron furnace”, as the Jeremiah (11:4) called Egypt, were what made us into the Jewish people, and it would be these lessons that God would continually remind us of, in His Torah.
The Sefas Emes (R’ Yehuda Aryeh Leib of Ger, d.1905), in his commentary on the Hagada, points out that this is the lesson of the korech that we eat at the Seder, in which eat the matzoh and maror together. The primary symbolism of the matzah is redemption and freedom, the symbolism of maror is suffering. By eating them together, we indicate that, at the most basic level, they are not separable. The achievement of true redemption and freedom can only come about through the spiritual crucible of suffering. As the Dubno Maggid quotes from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Brachos 5a):
שלש מתנות טובות נתן הקב”ה לישראל, וכולן לא נתנן אלא על ידי יסורין. אלו הן: תורה וארץ ישראל והעולם הבאGod gave three good gifts to the Jewish people, and all of them were only given through suffering. These are: The Torah, the land of Israel, and the World-to-Come.