No Thank-you

November 23rd, 2010 Posted by Thought Tools No Comment yet

My wife and I love receiving the thank-you notes a friend sends whenever she is a guest at one of our Shabbat meals. Unlike typical thank-you cards, hers detail the experiences at our table.  She mentions the delicious food, the scintillating conversation, and the stimulating company.  (I am quoting from a recent note she sent!)

My late father, the great rabbi, A. H. Lapin often said that saying, “thank-you for everything,” really means thank-you for nothing.  What he was getting at was that merely mouthing the words ‘thank-you’ is an inadequate response to the good we have received.  As the beneficiaries of good we ought to reciprocate with something more substantive than just disturbing a few air molecules as we vibrate our vocal chords into projecting two routine syllables.

A small gift or hand-written card is wonderful. At the very least, we ought to detail the precise benefits we derived and for which we are expressing appreciation.

Ancient Jewish wisdom points out something rather remarkable.  In the entire Torah, nobody says thank-you.  Adam doesn’t thank God for Eve; Abraham never thanks God for his son, Isaac, and Noah neglects to thank God for saving him from the flood. While the Israelites do sing a song of praise to God after their deliverance from Egypt, they never actually say the words, ‘thank-you’.

The word used in modern Israeli Hebrew for thank-you, todah, does not appear in the five books of Moses other than as the name of a specific gratitude offering:

And when you offer a Thank-you offering to the Lord…
(Leviticus 22:29)

This constitutes a valuable clue in our attempt to unravel the deeper meaning of thank-you.  It turns out that merely mouthing ‘thank-you’ is not part of God’s Biblical blueprint.  It is preferable to do an action reflecting your gratitude.

Or, at the very least, specify the details about which you are grateful, as we see demonstrated in Psalm 136.  King David says thank you to God but he doesn’t stop there.  He goes on for 26 verses specifying what acts of God he so deeply appreciates. Here are some of the verses.

Give thanks to God; for he is good;
for His loving kindness endures forever. (Verse 1)

To Him who with wisdom made the heavens;
for His loving kindness endures forever. (Verse 5)

To Him who made great lights;
for His loving kindness endures forever… (Verse 7)

The Jewish holyday most associated with giving thanks is Chanukah for which the liturgy explicitly prescribes expressions of gratitude to God.  I don’t consider it a coincidence that Chanukah and Thanksgiving often fall out within days from each other, as they do this year.

Appreciating the people around us is one way of appreciating God as well. After all, imagine the terrible loneliness if God didn’t provide us with a world full of potential friends, partners and companions.

This Thanksgiving, let’s not only give thanks to God but also to our family and friends, to our spouses and siblings.  Maybe even to our employers and fellow workers who all help to make it possible for us to live abundantly. What a marvelous time to practice King David’s lesson by joyfully specifying the benefits we derive from these relationships. Let’s give thanks for those things we easily take for granted and only notice when they are missing.

I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by people’s reactions.  You’ll be even more surprised to discover how uplifting it feels to appropriately deliver appreciation.

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