Is Saying Thank You Nature or Nurture
Early in my marriage my husband complained that I never said “Thank you.” I denied the accusation — there was no way that I was that rude person who was so cavalier that I ignored people’s kindness to me. Of course I said thank you! But then I began to pay attention. I realized that I didn’t always express my appreciation. So I took stock of myself as a person and made a point of recognizing the good in people’s actions.
Then I had children, and once the kids began to speak I focused on teaching them to say please and thank you. They caught on fairly quickly — was it nature or nurture? Did I teach the kids how to be grateful or was it in-born? A fair question.
In this week’s parashah Eikev God makes a promise to the Israelites:
If they obey these rules and observe them … [then God] will bless the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, your new grain and wine and oil, … You shall be blessed above all other people.” Deuteronomy 7:12-14
The parashah continues alternatively with God’s rules and commandments and the people’s rewards (and sometimes punishments).
In the middle of Moses’ exhortation there is a curious verse: “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you.” (Deut. 8:10 in the New Jewish Publication Society translation) This verse may be familiar to many as it is the basis for the commandment of saying the Grace After Meals. But what interests me about the verse goes back to the act of saying thank you. Does the verse suggest that we naturally learn to be thankful or is the act of saying thanks a commandment that we must follow as a learned behavior?
The Hebrew Bible does not use punctuation so it isn’t clear whether the verse should be read as “when [I] eat [my] fill [I] give thanks” or “when you eat your fill, give thanks.” The first version of the text seems to suggest that giving thanks is a natural part of our lives. We eat and drink and then of course we give thanks. The second reading with the comma separating the first and second clauses suggests that the behavior is mandated. Thus we must learn to say thank you.
Rabbi Shefa Gold, a well-known Renewal and Reconstruction rabbi who uses music and chanting to access the spiritual side of Jewish practice, in her book Torah Journeys, translates the phrase as “you shall eat and you shall bless, and you shall be satisfied.” (Torah Journeys p. 182) Her translation transposes the words “bless” and “satisfied,” which leads me to conclude that the act of eating and blessing is something that is done together as a natural act. It is only then when you have completed these natural acts of eating and thanking God that one can be satisfied. Rabbi Gold seems to imply that the act of blessing (or showing gratitude) is a natural act. No one needs to be taught to eat; similarly no one needs to be taught to give thanks.
However Nachmanides, a Spanish Talmudist, Kabbalist and biblical commentator from the thirteenth century, reads the verse as “… when you have eaten your fill, remembering what you suffered in Egypt and in the wilderness, you will give thanks to the Lord for the good land.” Nachmanides on Deuteronomy 8:10 (emphasis added) This language appears to be a command — “you will give thanks” Is Nachmanidies suggesting that, based on the syntax, you must learn how to give thanks?
In Chizkuni’s sixteenth century commentary on the Torah the Italian commentator states that “when you have eaten and been satisfied you are to say grace.” He notes that in the Talmud Tractate Sotah: “After a person has sated himself, and is revolted by seeing more food, he is obligated to pronounce these benedictions.” While the commentator seems to imply that being thankful is a learned behavior, we could understand the commentary as suggesting that when one is hungry and sits down to a meal, that one will bless the God who has provided food without external prompting. Perhaps saying thank you in our blessing to God is an automatic response to having food to eat.
Soforno, an Italian biblical commentator and physician who lived at the turn of the sixteenth century, takes us in another direction, explaining that God blesses us with abundant food so that we will remember that a land with such an abundance of advantages could only come from God. Soforno seems to suggest that it is remembering that we haven’t created our world (rather, that it all comes from God) that prompts us to be grateful and bless God. It is neither nature nor nurture, rather it is the act of remembering that God is in charge.
The Hebrew word for gratitude is Hkarat ha’tov, which literally means “recognition of the good.” The phrase demands an action on our part — recognition. This might suggest that as we grow we naturally recognize the good. In other words by recognizing the good, we are in a position to naturally be thankful and to bless God.
I’ve been working on my gratitude practice and recognizing the good. And I’m glad to report that I have mastered saying thank you and recently received praise from my husband that my saying thank you seems so natural.
Chaplain Deborah Schmidt