Why “Thank You” Is Not Enough
How can we instill genuine gratitude in our children? We teach them to say “thank you,” but this often remains as a superficial expression of politeness. Unfortunately, without more depth, these children may perceive the world in mechanistic terms. They may say: “If I want a cookie, I need to say ‘please,’ and if I want another, either now or in the future, I need to say ‘thank you.’” This should be of no surprise since we call these ‘the magic words.’
We tell our children to ‘just say the magic word’ as we hold the toy or candy in front of them, and by so doing, they can get whatever they want. As these children grow older, they may become more adept, learning how to use a larger cadre of ‘magic words’ to get what they seek. While this will help them achieve success in some areas, it may lead to egocentrism and entitlement, believing everything is there for them, if they just say ‘the magic words.’ What we would like is for these words to reflect a genuine expression of gratitude.
Before continuing, we need to first define gratitude. Its root is the Latin gratia, meaning favor or goodwill, ‘not compelled by legal right (Merriam-Webster).’ The receiver of this gratis experiences the equivalent of the Hebrew hanun (favor), and hessed (kindness) - the feeling that they are incurring more benefit than one deserves or expects, to which the response should be hoda’ah (thankfulness/acknowledgment).
This is a two-part progression as noted by Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California. First, in recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome and that this positive outcome came from an external source. This is increasingly more difficult in the ‘Me Generation’ or ‘iGeneration,’ those born between 1980 and 2000. This group has been taught to focus on the self, and that the world is theirs for the taking. Dr. Jean Twenge in her book Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before presents her studies which show this generation having an over-inflated sense of self. Therefore, how can one expect someone from the ‘Me Generation’ to even begin the process towards expressing gratitude? They believe it was theirs for the taking.
Why is this negative? One can be a great scientist, doctor, lawyer, businessman, or any other profession without having a sense of gratitude. So, why should gratitude be a value that we seek to instill within our children? Dr. Emmons and Dr. Stern make a compelling case in their article Gratitude as a Psychotherapeutic Intervention. They wrote: “Gratitude has one of the strongest links to mental health and satisfaction with life of any personality trait—more so than even optimism, hope, or compassion.” If we want our children to experience the “higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism,” then we need to teach them to be grateful. This is not to mention the benefits of improved and strengthened relationships and collaboration.
So, how do we teach our children to recognize that the world does not owe them? It is not just through teaching them to say “please” and “thank you,” because as important as these words are, if used alone, they risk becoming a tool, like a coin or a card that one puts into a vending machine. These words need to be expanded to elaborate on why our children are thankful.
This may be the reason why the Thanksgiving offering of the Torah is obligatory. One may think that a Thanksgiving offering should be voluntary and brought only when one feels emotionally grateful, but according to numerous Jewish commentators and legalists, it is mandatory. The same is true with the blessing birkat haGomel which is recited to acknowledge God’s hessed after surviving one of four scenarios: surviving a journey at sea or through the desert, being released from prison or recovering from a severe illness. This blessing is not only thematically connected, but also takes the place of the korban (Tur Oreh Hayyim 219). Since the Gemara in Berakhot 54b says there are four who must recite this blessing, and, as we learn from the Tur, it is in place of the Thanksgiving offering, then these same scenarios would necessitate a korban Todah, and vice versa.
Alongside the animal offering, the person must bring forty loaves of bread. There are four different types loaves, one of each is given to the Kohen. This leaves the individual with thirty- six loaves. These loaves, along with the meat of the sacrifice, must be eaten before the next morning. Each loaf was the volume of over forty-three eggs, about the size of three egg cartons.
How long would it take you and your family to eat 36 loaves of bread equal to the volume of 129 cartons of eggs?! Is it even conceivable to consume that much bread in the one-day time limit? The Abarbanel, commentating on the Torah’s description of the korban Todah, expresses that he thinks it is not possible, and that is exactly the point. This large volume of food forces one to invite others to share in the meal. As Abarbanel articulates: “They will ask each other what is his Thanksgiving offering for? And he will relate to them the miracles and wonders that were done with him… (Abarbanel Vayikra 7:11)” With this understanding, Rashi’s comments become clearer.
Rashi, in his comment on the same source, connects the korban Todah to Psalms 107, thereby making the connection between the offering and verbally recounting God’s deeds. The Psalm states: ‘VeYizbehu zibhhei Todah, and they shall slaughter sacrifices of thanksgiving, viSaperu maAsav beRina, and they shall recount of His deeds with joyous song.’ The person brings the sacrifice and then praises God. The mandatory nature of the offering compels an individual to find a reason why they are thankful, beyond the ritual of saying ‘thank you’ or simply bringing an offering. With the shared meat, extra loaves, and short time-limit for its consumption, one must invite guests who will be ever curious: “Why are you celebrating?” The individual holding the festivities, knowing this, will have to prepare some thoughts or maybe even a speech to present to his guests.
This exercise forces us to articulate that which we are grateful for, the undeserved blessing we received from God and others. Similarly, the birkat haGomel must be said in public so that we can respond to those who ask, “Why are you saying Gomel?” While not as powerful as explaining why one is hosting a banquet, the process should cause one to articulate why they are thankful, developing genuine gratitude.
A study by Emmons and McCullough in their article Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life, demonstrates that a weekly journaling schedule to note specific reasons why one was grateful led to participants feeling more grateful and optimistic. The reason is that participants needed to find specific experiences to express in writing. That is the message of the korban Todah. To develop genuine gratitude, we need to specify precisely why we are grateful. This is even before the appreciation is felt. The exercise of writing necessitates the enumeration of specific circumstances we should appreciate.
Creating regular routines, whether verbally or written, teaches children to be appreciative. That is why it is important to create gratitude routines. Too often, children hear their parents complaining: “I can’t believe they didn’t give me X or do Y for me.” That just furthers the feeling of entitlement. Instead, parents should say: “Wow, look at what X has done. I am so grateful.”
That conveys that one is receiving more than deserved, and it is appropriate to articulate that
When sitting around the table for a weeknight or Shabbat dinner, a parent can ask their children to tell them to share something good that happened that day. My wife, Talia, and I have a weekly gratitude routine during Havdalah, within the haslihenu section, where we ask for God to help us out. We take a moment to express to each other what we are grateful for. When we have guests, we ask if they would like to share. We have found that this instills in us a favorable feeling towards God and others. We hope that our daughter Adina, seeing this ritual every Saturday night, will recognize the blessings we have and feel genuine gratitude.
Rabbi Meyer Laniado is a Rabbi at Congregation Magen David of West Deal and Hillel Yeshiva High School.