By Rabbi Dan Lewin
One of the first words learned when studying modern Hebrew, and the most well-known, is “todah,” meaning “thank you.” This word shares a root with “hodaah,” which means “to acknowledge.” The simple connection is that expressing thanks stems from recognizing the good that has been done to you. Just as it is important to express gratitude to a fellow human being for a favor, so too should we express thanks to G-d for the many acts of kindness performed on our behalf.
In the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, the main topic is the different offerings made in the Sanctuary and their related procedures. This week, we learn about the “Todah” or “thanksgiving” offering. The verse states: “If he is bringing it as a thanksgiving offering, he shall offer, along with the thanksgiving offering, unleavened loaves mixed with oil, unleavened wafers anointed with oil and scalded flour mixed with oil” (Vayikra 7:4).
Interestingly, the biblical commentaries deduce that the Todah offering was not meant for general expressions of gratitude, but rather for specific miracles that had occurred. There were four types of events for which the offering was brought. (Otherwise, one would be obligated to bring a Todah offering multiple times a day, given the countless blessings we receive daily.)
Although there is no Temple today, the various offerings in the Torah continue to hold meaning for us. These are the temples that every Jew possesses within, the holy place of the soul where your worship of G-d takes place. And along with the general idea of bringing a “sacrifice” (giving up something as an offering), each offering has its broader theme.
Gratitude and its various expressions lie at the heart of Jewish life. The primary purpose is to recognize the ultimate source for all matters and movements — the weather, our breath, mental and physical health, sustenance and every other aspect of our existence. From the moment we awaken, we recite a special prayer called “Modeh ani” (literally, “I acknowledge/offer thanks…for you have mercifully restored my soul within me…”) wherein we thank G-d for granting us another day to live.
This consciousness continues throughout the day and extends into the minutest components. On the verse in Psalms, “let every soul praise the Lord,” the commentaries explain that the word “soul” can be read as “breath” — that with every breath one must offer thanks. Thus, whether it’s taking a simple breath or reaching a significant milestone, one must always remember to be thankful to the One who created it all.
Even a sip of water, which is relatively insignificant compared to the many other possessions we have acquired, deserves acknowledgment and gratitude. By doing so, we train our natural inclination not to take anything for granted.
In Jewish ethics and mysticism, one of the most fundamental principles is the existence of a counterforce to all good and meaningful progress, both externally and within. It is therefore crucial for individuals to develop self-knowledge and understand how this opposition operates in their lives. In the context of gratitude, self-destructive thoughts often creep in during pivotal moments, attempting to diminish the blessings we have received.
Consider the example of a businessman who has just negotiated a big deal but is left feeling dissatisfied because he didn’t come away with as much as he had hoped. Instead of appreciating the victory and recognizing its ultimate source, he may find himself fixating on the missed opportunity and thinking, “I could have gotten more.” To be sure, the person may be grateful. But the inner opponent blocks intellectual gratitude from properly spreading to the heart.
This tendency to focus too much on the void or our mistakes at the wrong time is all too common in other areas of our lives as well. During moments we should be celebrating, the self-destructive force taints our recognition and appreciation of blessings by shining light on some flaws. However, by training ourselves to emphasize the positive aspects of our experiences, we can refine these untamed tendencies and develop a greater sense of fulfillment. This shift in focus can yield tangible benefits on physical, psychological and spiritual levels.
As human beings, we tend to create narratives of our lives, interpreting events and experiences in a way that fits the structure of our overarching stories. Part of our challenge is managing emotions that flow when things don’t go the way we had hoped. And in such moments, thanksgiving plays a vital role.
The form of gratitude we’ve been discussing is not simply a reflection or technique to soothe your anxiety and make yourself feel better, like journaling and focused reflections. Rather, it’s a deep acknowledgment that realigns your chaotic mind with reality, which thereby prevents an unhelpful and distorted interpretation of events.
Choosing to call more attention to the good — what you have rather than what you lack — also solidifies a deeper relationship with G-d (a type of inner offering). In addition to becoming more conscious of the ongoing personal divine providence, gratitude demonstrates appreciation for all goodness in your life.
But for gratitude to be complete, it must travel from within the mind and transmute into joy. And for happiness to be complete, gratitude must be expressed, affecting our speech as well as our mood. The final product entails a string of inner jewels — recognition, acknowledgment, happiness and thanksgiving — that become intertwined to form a protective spiritual adornment.
This permeating positive vibe also creates a conduit for more blessings. Because when G-d sees the effort made to recognize the true source for the many blessings you have already received — and to feel grateful and express thanks — then He provides for all your future needs smoothly, even before you ask. This includes removing obstacles to success so that you can climb higher and higher.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.