When you sacrifice a thanksgiving offering to the LORD . . . (Lev. 22:29). R. Pinchas, R. Levi, and R. Yochanan taught in the name of R. Menachem of Gallia: In the future to come, all sacrificial offerings will be abolished, but the thanksgiving offering will never be abolished; all [general] forms of thanksgiving will be abolished, but the thanksgiving declarations of the thanksgiving offering will never be abolished.
In many ways, Judaism derives its name from a "thank you"—from the moment that Leah "conceived again and bore a son, and declared, 'This time I will praise the LORD.' Therefore she named him Judah" (Gen. 29:35). We, the spiritual descendants of Judah, affirm the power of that moment whenever we say a blessing in praise of our Creator.
Feelings and expressions of gratitude are universally fundamental to the human religious experience, and this midrash teaches that one ancient ritual, the todah offering, carries a timeless message about how we must recognize God's role in our lives at joyful times. Of course, happiness takes many forms, and the following commentary shows how we must appreciate the blessings of health and contentment, especially after surviving bodily peril.
Professor Baruch Schwartz, discussing this ritual in The Jewish Study Bible, writes that "the todah, or sacrifice of thanksgiving, is offered according to Psalm 107 (and rabbinic law) by one who has recovered from illness, been rescued from danger, or returned safely from a journey. It is accompanied by prayers of thanksgiving, proclaiming to all present the beneficence of God enjoyed by the offerer. Mandated by happy circumstance, it is more an obligation than a voluntary offering."
While this scholarly insight clarifies our understanding of the todah offering, it sharpens a number of questions that arise from the midrash above. Why, according to R. Menachem, should this sacrificial offering alone remain in the future? If this ritual serves as a response to a near-death experience, why does it continue at all in a redeemed world?
Because Jewish tradition includes many different ideas about the world to come and because we each must come to our own grasp of our mortality, I believe the best answer I can offer comes from personal experience. I became an observant Jew as a ba'al teshuvah, one returning to traditional practice after recognizing the absence of God and Torah from my daily life. Upon finding that a lifestyle and a community focused on mitzvot could create order amidst the chaos of the world inside and around me, I discovered that I had been reborn.
I call myself a "born-again" Jew from having surmounted this mortal chaos to attain a second lease on life. I awake every day with the Modeh Ani prayer: "Thankful am I before You, living and eternal Sovereign, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me. How great is Your faithfulness!" I approach every day as a gift, a privilege that I must earn.
I do not know what awaits us in the future, but I hope to find a reality imbued with the kind of gratefulness I strive to develop continually within myself and to share with others in this lifetime. May we all come to discern the blessing of each new day and to declare our thanks to God for opening our eyes to the beauty of our lives.