Gratitude to God must echo

Never once in the Hebrew Bible does one human being say thank you to another.

By AVI WEISS
December 18, 2006 22:59
4 minute read.

 
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Hanukka, like all of our holidays, is a time to express appreciation to God. The festival's main prayers, Al Hanissim and Hanerot Halalu, include the words, "Lehodot… leshimcha Hagadol"; this is a day on which we give thanks to God for the Hanukka miracle. In fact, Hanukka emerges as the archetypal holiday of offering thanksgiving. The Talmud proclaims that the eight days of Hanukka were permanently established as festive days of thanksgiving. Later on, when Maimonides codified the laws of the Hallel prayer, which focus on giving thanks to God, he placed them in the section of his compendium that deals with Hanukka rather than another holiday. Interestingly, two central figures in the Hanukka story - the hero, Judah Maccabee, who led the resistance and cleansed the Temple, and the heroine, Judith, daughter of Yochanan the high priest, who slew Holofernes, the Greek general - have names derived from the Hebrew word for hoda'a (thank you) - which in the Torah refers to expressions of appreciation of God. The original Judah, of course, was the son of Jacob and Leah, about whom, not coincidentally, we read in the Torah portion of Vayeshev during the week of Hanukka. His mother, when naming him, declared, "Hapa'am odeh et Hashem" - this time I will give thanks to the Lord. Names describe who we are. We are Yehudim. The very name Jew/Yehudi means that we are a people dedicated to offering our thanks to God. Over and over, words derived from hoda'a in the Torah and Prophets are associated with thanking God. The word toda, for example, as found in the Tanach, is linked above all to korban toda, a key Temple ritual involving a thanksgiving offering to the Lord. But to my knowledge, never in Tanach is hoda'a connected with thanking another human being. Never once in the Hebrew Bible does one human being say thank you to another. WHY IS the Torah narrative, including the very term for Jew and the very word toda, directed only to God and not to our fellow human being? Bearing in mind that the basic message of Torah is that ultimate goodness derives from God, it is God who is always thanked. It's likely that in biblical times the language of thanking was reserved for God. People expressed gratitude to each other through blessings, physical manifestations such as kissing or falling at one another's feet, bestowing gifts and in other ways, but never with the words thank-you. Hanukka, with its richness of reference to hoda'a, is a time to remember to extend the message of thanking God to also thanking those created in the divine image, our fellow human beings. The Talmud, discussing the lighting of the Hanukka candles, speaks of "ner ish u'veito," a candle for each person and household, going on to enjoin everyone to light candles. Certainly thanksgiving to God is central to Hanukka, but the imagery of home and family - the Talmud's use of the word beito, an unusual term for a mitzva - suggests bringing the family closer, evoking relationships in which saying thank you is a central component. And the injunction to position the candles with their lights facing toward the outside suggests reaching out to the community, drawing closer to each other in every way possible, including expressions of thanksgiving. OUR CHALLENGE is to appropriate the language of saying thank you to God - and apply it to human beings as well. Our challenge is to take the terms yehudi and korban toda, and relate them not only to God, but to our fellow person. Our actions and words as Jews must be not only a vertical encounter with God, but also a horizontal encounter with our fellow human beings. When beginning the prayer service, for example, we might consider incorporating the custom of reciting the words "Harei ani mekabel al atzmi mitzvat veahavata lere'echa kamocha" - I accept upon myself the commandment to love my neighbor as myself. This includes remembering to appreciate and thank the other. During the silent Amida prayer we should be open to what can be called the reverberations of prayer. As we request of God that He heal us, God echoes: Are you healing yourself? As we say, Please God return to Jerusalem, God echoes, Are you returning yourself? As we recite, Modim anahnu lach - We thank You - God echoes, Are you thanking those who are closest to you? In my own pastoral work this was brought home to me in an incident involving a young man who had just lost his father. When his mother sought to comfort him by reminding him of how thankful his father had been to have him as a son, the young man's grief became even more intense. Days later, I asked him why his mother's comments had precipitated such a reaction. I'll never forget his response: "I appreciated my mother's words, but I lost it because never, never while Dad was alive did he ever thank me for anything, never did he say. 'I love you.' I heard those words for the first time only after he died." On Hanukka, we offer thanks to God. But the reverberations of our thanking God should also remind us to embrace those closest to us and those further away in an ever-expanding circle of light - to utter the two simple words we so often forget to say: Thank you. The writer is Founder and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the Modern and Open Orthodox Rabbinical School. He is also the Senior Rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

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