Thanks ? and No Thanks
By Rabbi Basil Herring
I have seen grown men and women cry, hurt to the quick, because someone omitted to say ?thank you.? And I have also seen people racked with pain, find a special solace and comfort because another human being found the courage to say ?thanks.? How strange that some people who are inordinately generous and giving of their means - find it extraordinarily difficult to utter that little word that costs them nothing! For the word ?thanks? conveys many things. It tells another person that I feel gratitude and gratification as a result of something he or she has done for me. It tells that person that I value their being, pay tribute for their having performed a special act that I did not, or could not. do for myself - and it puts me in their debt - if not financially, then in sentiment.
No wonder, therefore, that there are people who find it so difficult to express that word. For the proud or arrogant person, believing in his or her self-sufficiency, cannot bear the thought of conveying such indebtedness to another. How foolish they are! If only they realized how much people will do, how far they will go for a person who they know will show easy and spontaneous gratitude! Pity the employer who does not reward his workers with such words of appreciation - on the grounds that people who are paid for doing what they do, need no public thanks. Pity the husband or wife who has become so accustomed to the efforts and favors of a spouse that they take their relationship for granted, never pausing to say ?I really want to thank you; it was so good of you to do that!? How sad it is when we treat the significant and insignificant others in our lives, from co-workers to teachers, from partners to children, from friends to loved ones, without the elementary sensitivity that knows that all of us want and need recognition in one way or another!
On the other hand, fortunate is the man or woman who has taught him or herself to use the words ?thank you,? so that they come naturally and easily. Not just for what such a person can get out of other people as a result, but for what that sentiment says about the kind of person he or she is. For one whose byword is one of appreciation, is generally one who recognizes that the world is not just there for his taking. Such a person is, as Peter Marrin has written, sensitive to the fact that:
this world was given to me as a gift... that everything comes to me from somebody else's labor. For whatever you make use of and enjoy, immediately confers upon you a kind of responsibility and reciprocity. And nothing is given to people - not their thought processes, not their name, not their sense of ego which they can claim credit for on their own. Everything comes to them through others. And to the extent that it is used and enjoyed, to that extent one owes something in return.
Center Magazine 4:4:26
In other words, such a person knows that there is no such thing as a self-made man. We are all dependent on each other -just that some of us recognize it more than others do. And only very few of us understand that little of what we have is ours because we deserve it. No wonder such gratitude is a rare commodity. As Samuel Johnson once said, ?Gratitude is a fruit of great cultivation - you do not find it among gross people.? Sad to tell, most people think quite the opposite - a fact which McDonald's capitalizes on so effectively when they advertise that ?you deserve the best, today,? meaning, of course, every day!
Permit to illustrate what I mean when I refer to people who feel that they are entitled to the good things in life, as a right. not merely as a privilege. Some years ago, the magazine Psychology Today ran a survey among its readers, most of whom are unusually intelligent, sensitive, and educated. The survey turned up the following results: 68% of the readers take home office supplies and materials; 47% take sick days even though they are well enough to go to work; 38% withhold or distort information on their income tax returns; 33% would keep a $10 bill given them in error at the checkout counter; and 31% would knowingly buy a stolen color TV set. Apparently there are more than just a few people who feel that life, or society owes them more than they can legitimately get; that the benefits are theirs for the taking; that they deserve whatever advantage they can lay their hands on.
Now what is true of our dealings in our social affairs, is equally, if not more, true of our dealings with God. If so many of us are insensitive to how much we are indebted to others, if so many are incapable of saying ?thank you? to loved ones, friends, and acquaintances, how much more so are they incapable of recognizing their total indebtedness to God Himself, and as a result live lives that are spiritually emaciated and handicapped. For at the very basis of the religious life lies the overwhelming impulse to say ?thank God,? again and again. Show me a man who looks around him at the glorious creation, and cannot say ?thank God,? and I will show you a man who in spirit is incapable of the religious life. Show me a woman who gazes into the eyes of hernewborn infant without feeling the immensity of God's gift, and I will show you a woman who has no concept of the meaning of the divine. An adult human being who cannot sense God's special providence in his or her life, who never feels that he or she is blessed with a cornucopia of undeserved goodness, such a person is surely spiritually disadvantaged in the extreme. And when a nation reaches the point that it has lost the ability to acknowledge the presence and the gifts of God in its midst, then such a people, is in deep trouble. For if it cannot honestly thank God for its blessings, how will its people learn to thank each other in an expression of common social decency?
Which brings me to the prophetic words of Isaiah. In his very first
chapter, in his very first rebuke of his people, Isaiah cries out against the
Hear O heavens and give ear O
earth, for the Lord hath spoken. Children I have raised and brought up, and
they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master's
feeding trough - but
What is this transgression, this travesty? Following the commentary of
the medieval Rabbi Eliezer Bolganzi,
we understand what pains Isaiah so ? it is
Recognizing One's Benefactor
For the truth of the matter is that the two are intertwined and organically connected. He who cannot thank God, cannot thank man; he who is a congenital ingrate must perforce be a spiritual pygmy. It is one and the same. No wonder so much of tefillah, or prayer, is filled with constant praise and thanks, thanks and praise, for divine gifts received, provided, and accepted. And no wonder that for so many modern men and women such prayerful praise and gratitude is boring and repetitious - reflecting their own inner feelings so inured to the sense of wonder and awe typical of Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism.
How interesting that it is this very quality of gratitude that is the
meaning of the word ?Jew.? For we are called Jews, Yehudim.because the ancient
this time I will give thanks to the Lord; therefore she called him Yehudah.
Thus the very name Judah, or Jew, means to give thanks to God. And the very existence of the Jew is a living testimonial to God's kindness and compassion. For that is the very raison-d'etre of the Jew - to teach the world that ?the Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof,? and that therefore, toy le' hodot lashem, it is good to give thanks to the Lord!
Let us, therefore, learn, if we have forgotten, the beauty of a simple thank you. Let us appreciate the marvelous value of that little phrase, its ability to make the most ordinary person feel special, its way of conveying to our dear ones that we value and love them, even as we appreciate what and who they are. Let us perceive anew its fundamental place in the life of the spirit, as we come to serve the God of our fathers. At home to strengthen our family ties and friendships, in the work place, and perhaps particularly in the synagogue where it is so easy to be ungrateful for the efforts of others, let us strive to recognize the efforts of our fellows.
In that way will it come to be that not only our fellows will come to appreciate our own efforts and contributions, but God Himself will reward our gratitude, by giving us reason to be even more grateful - to shower us with never ending blessing and goodness, leading ultimately to the ingathering of our exiles, the reconstitution of the state of Yehudah, or Judea, there to witness the rebuilding of our Holy Temple, to sing the praises and utter our appreciation, of the good Lord, and in that way to overcome the transgressions that led to the exile and dispersion of this people, created to call on the name of God!