“For the sin we committed before You by insufficient respect for parents and teachers.”
The first words out of the mouth of a traditional Jew upon waking are: “I am grateful,” Modeh Ani. It is not merely a prayer. It is a personal statement of being. It is a reflection on abundance before we have even engaged the world. We are grateful merely for the fact of our existence. “I give thanks to You, living and everlasting King, for You have restored my soul with mercy. Great is Your faithfulness.” My soul has been restored. I can live another day.
Yet as we travel through the rest of the day and face the prosaic cares it spews forth, we understand that rather than set the tone for the day, Modeh Ani can feel like a momentary aberration. A day full of gratitude seems increasingly unlikely. We said thank you once and first but may hear and say it less as the hours pass.
Most people fail to get the recognition they deserve for the work they do or for the small kindnesses they attempt. We even find ourselves saying, “no good deed goes unpunished” a little too often. Not only will goodness not be acknowledged, it may bring some trouble in its wake. The first time I heard this expression as an adult, I thought it was a mistake. Surely, good deeds go unpunished. They get rewarded. The person must have gotten it wrong. But then as some of the veneer of innocence peeled off, I came to understand that this is often a thankless world and that we must nurture ourselves because we may not get the support we need from others. Good things we do go misunderstood or undervalued. This erosion of faith in others can turn optimists into pessimists and pessimists into nihilists.
The bankruptcy of gratitude is always an enigma. Philosopher David Hume in A Treatise of Human Nature believed that ingratitude was the ugliest of human behaviors: “Of all crimes that human creatures are capable of committing, the most horrid and unnatural is ingratitude, especially when it is committed against parents, and appears in the more flagrant instances of wounds and death.”1David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2011), 300. The incapacity to thank others was deemed unnatural by Hume, implying that the impulse to be grateful stems from some genuinely loving instinct that is somehow obstructed. Ingratitude towards parents was particularly problematic for Hume. Although parents get no formal training for the job and many fall short of its incredible emotional and physical demands, for Hume, at least parents bring you into the world. The appreciation we owe parents – in some ways the human equivalent to the Modeh Ani, which demands gratitude before we even start the day – is first and foremost for the fact that we could not exist without them, notwithstanding all the sacrifices that they make or made to ensure that we have life’s necessities and its many bonuses.
Hume’s implication would seem counter to what we hear many times a day. We hear people say thank you all the time. We thank people, but thanking them is not necessarily recognizing them. Hume was scratching beneath the surface of petty formalities. We often thank people because it is expected. It is part of being polite. It is on the agenda for a meeting, scripted and prepared. Sometimes the thank you is pre-written, ready to offer when the evening is over, the event is done, the exchange is completed. A full sentence was cropped to two words, then one word, and then finally one word with no vowels: thnx. Too much is missing, and it’s more than a vowel that we lack. These empty words are not spontaneous, extemporaneous, or fresh. Some thank yous feel stale and insincere.
Worse is that many thank yous are really hidden requests for something else, like acknowledgment letters from charities that are really just another solicitation. Veteran fundraiser Jerold Panas believes that donors must be thanked seven times to feel appropriately recognized.2Jerold Panas, The Fundraising Habits of Supremely Successful Boards (Medfield, MA: Emerson and Church, 2006). Maybe people need to be thanked multiple times because they really feel they haven’t been thanked at all.
What explains this lack of appreciation or our incapacity to express gratitude sincerely, specifically, and robustly, especially if it is deemed unnatural to lack gratitude? Robert Solomon in The Psychology of Gratitude ponders this very matter in his foreword to the book:
The neglect of gratitude is, in itself, interesting…. We do not like to think of ourselves as indebted. We would rather see our good fortunes as our own doing…. Like the emotion of trust, it invokes an admission of our vulnerability and our dependence on other people. Thus gratitude lies at the very heart of ethics. It is more basic, perhaps, than even duty and obligation.3Robert Solomon, “Foreword,” in The Psychology of Gratitude, ed. Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2004), v–vi.
We may not consciously think of gratitude as an act of vulnerability, but it is a statement of need and dependence that some may rather dismiss than admit. We hear variations of this all of the time:
“That’s what any child should do for his parents.”
“I don’t have to thank her. She gets a paycheck.”
“He knows he did a good job. He doesn’t need me to tell him.”
“I don’t want her head to get so big it can’t get through the door.”
This emotional stinginess is not helped by the fact that those who may have received little praise as children have decided unconsciously to pay the debt forward. “I didn’t get a thank you. Why should you?” This deficit-based way of interacting is highly flawed; it serves only to diminish others and, in so doing, diminishes our own sense of abundance and blessing.
Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, in Envy and Gratitude, writes that gratitude may be an admission that you are better than me. Envy, she writes, stems from a sense that love or material gain that should be given to me has been stolen by you. I cannot stand the sight of your enjoyment, only your misery, because your happiness should rightfully have been mine. Klein believes that envy is a response to profound childhood needs that went unfulfilled and are insatiable because the person who envies others “can never be satisfied because his envy comes from within and, therefore, always finds an object to focus on.”4Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude (London: Delacorte Press, 1963), 182. I am grateful to Joanne Cohen, who introduced me to this book. If I thank you for your advice, wisdom, energy, or friendship, I may be admitting that you have something I do not have. Because I may be mindful of your talents and abilities in relation to my own, my thank you may be a way that I confess to my own insecurities or inadequacies. I may not have enough self-confidence to acknowledge your importance in my life. “Gratitude is closely bound up with generosity,” Klein writes, stating that those who possess inner wealth can share their gifts easily with others and feel enriched as a result.5Ibid., 189. Those who lack this inner wealth may give to others but then have an exaggerated need for appreciation because of an anxiety that they have been “impoverished and robbed.” Depletion must be immediately filled.
Managing jealousy, greed, and envy – linked emotions for Klein – is difficult; all serve as obstacles to an attitude of gratitude. But because gratitude is so seminal to the religious life, we have to overcome our own limitations and learn how to extend it with authenticity and force. The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart (1260–1327) once wrote: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” Thank you does mean that I need you or that I am vulnerable or that I cannot function without help. It means that we live in the presence of others and that life in community is inherently about dependence. Thank you is an expression of relationship. It reveals the dependence we have on each other, even if a certain toughness of spirit prevents us, at times, from acknowledging it.
This sense of dependence is rendered powerfully in a prayer recited multiple times a day in traditional circles: the Modim, a statement of thanks that appears in the Amida (eighteen benedictions). Repeating it creates a pause at daily intervals to bow the knee low with humility and indebtedness:
We are thankful to You that You, Adonai, are our God and the God of our fathers, forever – Rock of our lives, Shield of our deliverance, You are in every generation. We will give thanks to You and recount Your praise, for our lives which are committed into Your hand, and for our souls which are entrusted to You, and for Your miracles of every day with us, and for Your wonders and benefactions at all times – evening, morning, and noon. You the Beneficent One – for Your compassion is never withheld. You are the Merciful One – for Your kindness never ceases; we have always placed our hope in You.
Evening, morning, and noon the miracles keep coming, and the lives and souls that we entrust to God are renewed, as is our hope. Notice how many times the word “You” appears in the prayer, while any reference to the self never makes an appearance.
This liturgical recitation of thanks has its High Holiday parallel. The piyut, or acrostic poem, “Imru L’Elohim,” affirms the obligation to praise God for an act of creation and sustenance, coupling it in each stanza with gratitude that God is forgiving and pardons our sins. We thank God for making us and then for our capacity to remake ourselves in God’s image:
He made all things with His word,
And He performed and accomplished [all],
He pardons the nation that He carries;
Therefore, His people trust in Him.
Remember the wonders He has performed.
We are asked to remember God’s wonders because this memory will generate more appreciation than we already feel.
Thanking God should spill over to the way that we thank human beings, but even those who pray these words with piety can scrimp when it comes to gratitude to a friend. Bahya ibn Pakuda, an eleventh-century Spanish scholar who wrote what many consider to be the first systematic work of Jewish philosophy, Duties of the Heart, offers a cogent explanation of this disparity. Duties of the Heart has become a staple of Musar literature and the yeshiva curriculum and has remained one of the chief works of ethical influence for centuries. Ibn Pakuda wrote it, he states in his introduction, because people were becoming overly concerned with the duties of the body (ĥovot ha’evarim) and its many demands while ignoring the duties of the heart (ĥovot halevavot). For ibn Pakuda, known affectionately as Bahya in most scholarly circles, thanksgiving was considered an important duty of the heart, and no Jewish heart is complete without an understanding of how interrelated belief is with gratitude. Bahya also understood that there are many utilitarian motives behind the kindnesses we extend to each other and the thanks that subsequently result:
When we consider the favors men do for each other, we find them all falling under one of five following categories: first, the favors done by parent for child; second, those done by a master for a slave; third, favors done by the wealthy for the poor, for the sake of heavenly rewards; fourth, favors done by one person for another for the sake of praise, honor, and earthly rewards; and fifth, those done by the powerful for the sake of the weak, out of pity and compassion.6Bahya ibn Pakuda, Duties of the Heart, Treatise III, Introduction, as found in Louis Jacobs, Jewish Ethics, Philosophy and Mysticism (New York: Behrman House, 1969), 5–6.
In each of these relationships, there is an imbalance of power that precipitates giving. A parent gives to a child out of responsibility; a master gives to his slave out of self-interest. The noble take care of the poor out of hope to get in God’s divine graces; people are kind to one another for praise or status. Sometimes kindness emerges out of compassion. If each of these human relationships generates appreciation, Bahya observed, then all of these impulses are even truer in relation to God:
How much more then, should a person obey, praise, and thank the Creator for all benefaction and benefactors, whose beneficence is infinite, permanent and perpetual, done neither for His own benefit nor for driving away misfortunes, but His all-loving kindness and grace towards people.7Ibid., 8.
The thank you that we give others is no match for the thank you that we owe God, who has no precipitating reason to bestow kindness upon us. It is all out of grace. If we can muster the thoughtfulness to understand this, the spillover impact is immense. If we can wrap ourselves around the fact that no one owes us kindness – it is all beyond what we deserve – then any kindness becomes an object worthy of acknowledgement. The physician and theologian Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) confirms Bahya’s sentiment: “Nothing that is done for you is a matter of course. Everything originates in a will for the good, which is directed at you. Train yourself never to put off the word or action for the expression of gratitude.”
Bahya’s understanding limns our reading of Judaism’s most famous expression of gratitude: Dayenu, the musical centerpiece of the Haggada. Virtually every commentator on this passage observes that we would not have thought it enough had God freed us from slavery but not given us a Torah. We would not be who we are without each stage in our historical progression, but Dayenu forces us to pause and underline those stages, understanding their causal relationship for the whole of our identity and appreciating that had God stopped at any stage, we would never have actualized the much larger vision of our spiritual and national agenda. While we never utter the Hebrew word for thanks in the song, we do not need to because we are makir tov, we recognize the good of the Exodus by acknowledging God’s hand in our salvation again and again:
How many kindnesses has God shown us!
If He had brought us out of Egypt but did not judge the Egyptians, it would have been enough.
If He had judged the Egyptians but not judged their gods, it would have been enough….
If He had given us the Torah but had not brought us to the land of Israel, it would have been enough.
If He had brought us to the land of Israel but did not build the Temple for us, it would have been enough….
How much more so do we owe thanks to God for His repeated and manifold favors to us! That He brought us out of Egypt…and he gave us the Torah, and…
Solomon Schimmel, in his article “Gratitude in Judaism,” comments on the unique structure of Dayenu as a model for expressing gratitude: “When we reflect on a benefit that God [or by extension, another person] has done for us, we should break it into its multiple components, meditating on each element.”8Solomon Schimmel, “Gratitude in Judaism,” in The Psychology of Gratitude, ed. Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2004), 40.
Can we say a better thank you? Dayenu tells us we can and that we must. When we sing the praises of others generously and specifically, we do more than offer them a gift. We open up our own world of plenitude, revealing to ourselves the great fortune that is ours, even amidst hardship. As contemporary writer Melodie Beattie observes: “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more.” Dayenu.
A thank you is most impactful when it identifies aspects of the recipient’s help or participation that are not obvious. Appreciation affects us most when we expect it least. In classes on the subject, I often ask students to write a thank you note to someone who is not expecting it, and offer time in class to write and read the notes, if participants want to share. One woman wrote a thank you note for someone who helped her cope with a difficult illness; she began to cry as she read what she wrote. Through tears, she said it made her feel good to write it. The note was not only for the recipient. It was also for the giver. She needed to feel the bounty of life, not despite her health struggle, but because of it. She needed to see beyond tragedy to a world of affirming kindnesses. Dayenu.
Dayenu teaches us that we need to be grateful immediately after an act of kindness and also to be thankful in the long-term for how all of those acts come together to form who we are. At every interval in life’s journey, a thank you forces a pause of meaning, an interruption that stops us on the path and makes us stand still. And this helps us better understand why we confess every Yom Kippur for not respecting our parents and teachers sufficiently. More than anyone else, they guide us through often painful and difficult passages of time when we need to grow emotionally and intellectually. We may blame them or harbor anger at one stage of our growth, then later come to appreciate the very prodding that at an earlier stage bewildered or troubled us. They are with us for the long haul. Dayenu.
Ruth Fainlight is a contemporary English poet, writer, and translator. She, too, helps us stop and savor the moment. She helps us look up in this season of judgment and offer praise:
Nothing ever happens more than once.
The next time is never like before.
What you thought you learned doesn’t apply.
Something is different. And just as real.
For which you might be thankful after all.
As we confess any disrespect we show to parents or teachers, two figures of authority in our lives, let’s redeem any hurt by acknowledging the goodness of parents and teachers in making us who we are. We often take these relationships for granted; we may disrespect them simply through a failure to acknowledge them. Even if relationships are strained or difficult, we can always find qualities to admire. Sometimes growing that admiration becomes the opening for a new kind of relationship.
Take out three pieces of your nicest stationery and three stamps.
• First Note: Write a thank you note to your parents (or one of your parents). You couldn’t possibly capture all that they have done for you but try the dayenu technique. Think of several ways that your parents have influenced you and include them all. The more specific you are, the more your thank you will have impact and meaning. Make this the note that your parent will keep because it speaks of a bond that is unique. If your thank you note can be given to ten other people, it is not personal enough.
• Second Note: Now write a note to a teacher who influenced you or modeled a special trait or taught you an important subject, even if it was a very long time ago. Try to track that teacher down. Tell this teacher what you are doing and how what they gave you helped make you into the person you are now. Great teachers are hard to find, but their names and positive associations stay with us for a lifetime. Teachers get so little thanks for growing us, but it’s never too late to say thank you to them.
• Third Note: In the spirit of surprise that makes a thank you meaningful, think of one person who deserves a thank you but who does not expect to hear from you right now.
Passages for Additional Study
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Repentance 6:4
This is what is implied in the requests of the righteous and the prophets in their prayers, [asking] God to help them on the path of truth, as David pleaded [Psalms 86:11]: “God, show me Your way that I may walk in Your truth”; i.e., do not let my sins prevent me from [reaching] the path of truth which will lead me to appreciate Your way and the oneness of Your name. A similar intent [is conveyed] by the request [Psalms 51:14]: “Support me with a spirit of magnanimity”; i.e., let my spirit [be willing] to do Your will and do not cause my sins to prevent me from repenting. Rather, let the choice remain in my hand until I repent and comprehend and appreciate the path of truth…
Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto, The Path of the Just, Chapter 10: “The Trait of Cleanliness”
Envy is nothing but want of reason and foolishness, for the one who envies gains nothing for himself and deprives the one he envies of nothing. He only loses, thereby, as is indicated in the verse that I mentioned (Job 5:2): “Envy kills the fool.” There are those who are so foolish that if they perceive their neighbor to possess a certain good, they brood and worry and suffer to the point that their neighbor’s good prevents them from enjoying their own.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, The Lights of Repentance, Chapter 3
There is a form of penitence that addresses itself to a particular sin or to many sins. The person confronts his sin face to face, and feels remorseful that he fell into the trap of sin. Slowly he struggles to come out of it, until he is liberated from his sinful enslavement and he begins to experience a holy freedom that is most delightful to his weary self. His healing continues; rays of a benign sun, bearing divine mercy, reach out to him, and a feeling of happiness grows within him…. His wistful spirit recalls with joyous relief its previous inner anguish, and is filled with a feeling of gratitude.
Text questions to think about while studying:
• How does walking in the way of God help you become more grateful?
• Why is envy the enemy of gratitude?
• What about teshuva makes you more grateful?