I was nearly thirteen when I really learned how to say thank you. As the Bar Mitzvah gifts arrived (sefarim, software for my new Apple II plus, and – obviously – a few pens), my parents emphasized the need to crank out the thank-you notes as quickly and efficiently as possible. The notes came in a box that seemed to contain one million matching envelopes and cards, all printed on the same cream-colored stock as the Bar Mitzvah invitations. It felt like a lot of work.
My mother taught me the basics of thank-you note writing, which years later the New York Times reiterated: “Start by thanking the person, with specificity, for their gift or kind act. Write about how you plan to use their gift or how their actions made you feel. And then reiterate your thanks and mention the next time you’ll see the person.” Words to live by – or at least words by which to thank people.
After the waters of the Yam Suf closed over the Egyptian enemies of the People of Israel, they could easily have departed with the spoils, nursing their Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (or, as some psychologists would have it, Post-Traumatic Growth). Yet they remained by the shore and sang a song of thanks. Moshe, followed by Miriam, led the people in a shira that is now part of our daily liturgy, a poetic song praising God with specificity, thanking Him for how His actions made them feel, and describing what they planned to do next. Rabbi Moshe Alshich explains that the People all received Divine inspiration, ruach ha-kodesh, and thus all sang the exact same words at the same time. It’s not enough, Moshe and the people show us, to feel gratitude; we need to express it out loud.
My teacher Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein zt’’l demonstrated this trait in a story I read recently (in this book, part of a wonderful series for kids). When his daughter suddenly underwent postpartum trauma after the birth of her first child and needed emergency surgery, the family rushed to the hospital to anxiously recite Tehillim outside the OR. When the doctor came out to inform them that Baruch Hashem, all was well, members of the family rushed to be by her side – but Rav Lichtenstein quietly continued praying. When his son-in-law bent down to see if perhaps Rav Aharon hadn’t heard the doctor, Rav Lichtenstein merely smiled and said, “When we needed to ask, we asked – and now that our request has been granted, shouldn’t we say thank you?” Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin writes that the word az, “then,” teaches us that the people only said their thanks once God’s act of chesed was complete. But once they saw the miracle, notes Rashi, they could not but sing such a song of praise and thanks. Rav Lichtenstein understood this as a fundamental truth.
What are we thankful for in our own lives that deserves a thank-you? Mr. Rogers, when he received a Lifetime Achievement Award, reminded his audience: “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take along with me ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are — those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life?” Authors Emily and Amelia Nagoski suggest that once we identify these people, we write them a letter of thanks – or, even better, visit them to express our gratitude.
We all have thank-you notes to write.