From time to time, I receive a handwritten thank you note. I always appreciate the thought and effort that went into the personalized message.
In the book, Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a lifetime, author Scott Simon shares how his mother was renowned for such gestures. “My mother wrote notes to give thanks to people. But she also wrote notes to remind herself of how people dotted her life with acts of grace, skill and kindness. I’ve heard from many people who’ve said they’ll always treasure a note that my mother wrote them.”
In this day and age, we are more likely to receive expressions of gratitude via emails and texts. I am admittedly old fashioned; my favorite is the phone call. It can be time consuming, but it opens the door to conversation, sharing and connection.
No matter the form, expressions of thank you are simply good manners. As long as the effort is sincere, the gesture will be received as genuine.
In the biblical story of Cain and Abel, each brother brought offerings to God. Abel’s gift was accepted; Cain’s was not. The rabbis explain that Abel brought the choicest lamb from among his flock, with his full heart and mind, indicating he had put some effort into offering the best of what he had. Cain, in contrast, brought some produce of the land that had required no purposeful intention on his part. God knew the difference and rewarded each of them accordingly.
This is one of many examples from our Jewish texts that speak to the importance of expressing gratitude from one’s heart. Our biblical ancestors were instructed to give thanks through the ritual of bikkurim, first fruits (Deut. 26:2): “…you shall take of the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from your Land …and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that your God, will choose…” Saying ‘thank you’ to God meant literally taking the best of what you had and giving it over.
The rabbis explain that expressing gratitude doesn’t necessarily come naturally or easily to all people. That is why there are commandments such as bikkurim and sacrifices in the Torah. In the same way, our parents taught us to ‘say thank you’, and write notes in acknowledgement of gifts, so that when we became adults, expressing gratitude would be a natural and routine behavior. Holidays such as Sukkot and Thanksgiving serve as annual reminders to give thanks.
In celebrating their first Thanksgiving, the pilgrims were grateful that they had survived their first winter in the New World. The feast was their way of expressing their gratitude to God. In our day, we also give thanks for the bounties in our lives, our health, our friends and our families. We prepare an elaborate meal, and invite others to join our tables. Many Americans also have the habit of volunteering at soup kitchens and shelters as a way of giving to those in need.
There are many ways to say thank you. In all the ways we choose, may we strive to make expressing gratitude a natural part of our lives.