Thursday, October 7, 2010

When Thanks is No Thanks

"Thank you". I am not sure there are any two words more often spoken in our society than those. We say thanks to everyone, from the waiter who brings our food in the restaurant to the person who cuts our hair. We thank when someone does us a favor and we thank when we pay for what we receive. We say thanks to strangers, people we don't actually know, and we say thanks to members of our own family for kindnesses both great and small.

The importance of "thank you" should not be minimized. Our Sages long taught that our relationship to G-d is founded on 'hakarat hatov', gratitude for the good we receive from Him.To the extent we lack gratitude is to the very extent our devotion to Hashem is compromised. Ramchal in his classic Mesilat Yesharim makes clear that the key to being faithful to G-d is feeling appreciation for all the blessings He bestows on us.

Yet I think it is important to realize that being thankful is much more than saying "Thank you". We can say "Thank you" a thousand times a day and remain essentially ungrateful. When the Sages called us to "hakarat hatov", they were focusing on our internalization of the indebtedness we owe for the goodness we receive. In short, gratitude is seen, not so much by what we say, but by what we do!

Let me give an illustration. The other night an old friend from the States called and said she was in Yerushalayim and wanted to visit, in a few hours! She realized she had not given any notice and since it was my daughter she most wanted to see, she said "I will take her out for Pizza". Wanting to be a good host I said "Why go out? Come and we will make supper here".

It was nice of me to offer. But the task of making the supper fell on my wife, who had just gotten home from working all day when I go the call. To Lindy's credit, in the spirit of our Matriarch Sarah, she was happy to prepare the meal, and on the spot! She was a great host and the food was delicious.

Now after Lindy's effort, of course, I said "Thank you". In fact I repeated several times that night how much I appreciated what Lindy did, and for someone who was not her friend, nor the friend of her daughter, but mine and the friend of my daughter!.

Yet, and here's the rub, the next day there was a confusion about the time of a meeting we were supposed to attend together and Lindy came home late . I was upset and angry.I blamed her. I expressed annoyance with her.
Where had all the thankfullness of the day before gone? I mean, if I was truly grateful for her great kindness of the day prior how could I become so upset now. Sure I said "thank you". But unless I feel thankful, and not only in the moment but in the context of our life together, the thanks is empty.

In the Parsha of Noach, which we read this week, one of Noach's sons, Ham, and his grandson, Canaan, see Noach in a vulnerable moment. They comrpomise him in his time of shame. And in the end, for their lack of respect for their father, they are cursed by him.
We might imagine that Ham, and all the family , had expressed thankfulness to Noach and many times. After all, because of him they were spared when the whole world was destroyed in the flood. Yet when it came time to show thanks, in Noach's moment of weakness, they ridiculed him or worse. The thanks they may have spoken was empty, no matter how sincerely expressed, if it did not translate into grateful behavior.

It is not enough that we say "thank you" or even feel "thank you" in the moment. Our relationship to G-d and to our spouses and community is based on our feeling a continuing sense of indebtedness, one that effects our behaviors towards the other even when we don't quite feel the "love". Gratitude needs to be more than a sentiment. It needs to be an operating dynamic in our lives, and in relationship.

In this case as in so many others in our lives, the call to us when we say "thank you" is "show, don't tell!". We need to show the gratefulness to make it matter. Talking the words without the concommitant behaviors is vacuuous.

Shabbat Shalom

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