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Being Vulnerable: Gratitude

The word “Jew” comes from the name given to the patriarch Judah: “[Leah] conceived again and bore a son, and declared, ‘This time I will thank the LORD.’ Therefore, she named him Judah.” (Gen. 29:35)

So an entire people is named after this one verb: to thank. Saying “thank you” is a definitional part of Judaism. Indeed, we understand that while we can delegate just about any job or task to someone else, “thank you” always has to be done in person, not through an intermediary.

But why does “thank you” really matter?

“Why do you hate me? I have not done anything nice for you!” I heard this as a Chinese expression, but like so many great aphorisms, it clearly translates between cultures. There is something that happens when we feel like we owe someone else. It festers inside us, becoming a barrier to relationships.

That is because saying “thank you” does not come easy. We have to teach our children to do it, and they instinctively resist the urge. “Please,” “Thank you,” and “You are welcome,” form the tripod of a loving relationship, family, or society. Each of these phrases is a step forward.

“Please” is a way of revealing our own needs, exposing our limitations, our reliance on other people. It is an admission that we cannot do things ourselves, that we are asking for something that could be refused. Kids really push back from this one. You can always tell a poorly-raised kid by their manners.

The next step is often even harder. Years ago, when I was a young choral singer, I was taught by the choirmaster how to receive a compliment, even (or especially) if you felt it was not deserved. You do not say, “I wish I had done better,” or “It was nothing [not worthy of thanks].” These are answers that throw the “thank you” back in someone’s face, rejecting them and their overture. Instead, we were taught to simply say, “Thank you.” If we thank someone, we are making them important to us, and doing it in an open and loving way. It makes all the difference.

“You are welcome” seals the deal, acknowledging mutual need and appreciation. It is far better than “no problem,” for example, since “no problem” belittles the initial gratitude and appreciation, saying that whatever was done is really beneath our attention or concern. The most insecure people are those that have the hardest time learning how to receive the thanks of others.

The challenge is that none of these things come naturally, as we can see from the fact that children (and adults) need to be taught to say them. And if we fail to do them, then we live out that Chinese aphorism: nice acts that are not appreciated become the source of awkwardness or hatred. “No good deed goes unpunished,” is what happens when good deeds are not appreciated and acknowledged by everyone concerned. A kindness is an opportunity to build a relationship; if that opportunity is missed, it becomes a source of tension. The tension is resolved when we can express our needs, receive from others, and exchange words of appreciation.

My people may be called “Jews” after the act of speaking our appreciation, but it bears noticing that the word “thank” does not appear in the Torah prior to Leah using it. Adam, Noah, Avraham, Isaac… in the Torah, none of them say “thank you” to G-d or to anyone else. It took all these generations, and not a little emotional pain and suffering to bring Leah to the point where she could do it – and she was the first to do so!

The guidebook that is the Torah exists (at least in part) because when we did not have it, humanity was lost. The early parts of Genesis tell us of man, left to his own devices, in a state of nature. We gravitated toward evil and violence, self-aggrandizement and hedonistic narcissism without limit.

It took an evolution over many generations to achieve a single person with the greatness of Leah, a person who was willing to be openly vulnerable and needy, who was willing to do whatever could be done to grow in her relationships.

But because she was the first and so very rare, it was clear to G-d that mankind does not invariably arrive at “Thank you” by ourselves. To get there as a people, we needed the Torah, full of laws designed to help us see the good that G-d and others do, and to act out that appreciation. From bringing the first fruits to sacrifices, to commandments to love one another as well as the stranger… the Torah is all about institutionalizing gratitude, making it the foundation of what it means to be a good and kind person.

Out of the chaotic post-Eden mess came Avraham and then his descendants. Avraham is the first in the Torah to use the word “please” (when he asks his wife to lie about their relationship). When he does that, he shows his need. Sara acquiesces, but even so, Avraham does not thank her: the first “thank you” in the Torah comes only three generations later.

Indeed, it took the leadership of Judah, the man named for “gratitude,” to conclude the trials with Joseph and to reunite the family. Gratitude was the prerequisite – in name and in deed – for the Jewish people to go from a tribe to a nation.

The Torah shows us an entirely different dimension to appreciation. The very same word is used when Moses invests himself in his successor, Joshua. Such investiture is giving of oneself, and it is both the same word as “thanks,” and also connected with the word “samach” which is what Moses does by laying hands on Yehoshua. It is the same verb when we “invest” ourselves in our sacrifices, or the priests invest sins into the sacrificial animals on Yom Kippur. This is done through touch, making a physical connection, a transference from one to the other. It all adds up to a simple, rich meaning: When we show gratitude, we invest ourselves into the recipient. This helps explain why vulnerability is a two-way street, a connection between two people that is fraught with uncertainty and danger and risk – as well as reward.

Saying “thank you” is a liberational event, releasing the pressure from the persons who say “thank you,” allowing them to carry on their life without the resentment that leads to awkwardness and hate.

P.S. There is another form of gratitude in the Torah, one that predates Leah. Avraham is the first, and he bows many times, both in subservience and also in appreciation. This same action, of bowing in gratitude, is echoed when we bring the first fruits during giving thanks to G-d for the harvest, as well as many other places.

<another @iwe and @susanquinn production>

Comments are welcome!