Saturday, January 8, 2011

Todah Rebuffed

Yom rishon, 4 Shevat 5771.

One of our successful parenting techniques in the realm of aliyah with our teenangels was to remind them how much we love them, and want them to be comfortable.  "If Heinz ketchup makes aliyah easier for you, we will buy it.  And that goes for any products that you miss from America.  Just remember that if the US ever decides on an embargo against Israel, it will be the only embargo that has ever been consistently adhered to in history, and the products you love might not be permitted in.  So try to be flexible.  Abba and I are trying to train ourselves to do without American stuff."  The project was successful.  Our kids knew we cared about their feelings; but in a short time, they said things like "Heinz just doesn't taste as good as Osem."  Little by little, the whole family has started to prefer most things Israeli -- though Stunt Man always smiles broadly when someone brings him a gift of Planter's Peanuts.

There is one American commodity I would like to convince the Israelis to import, however.  That American product is "Thank you."
"Todah" means "thank you" in Hebrew.

Now, lest you think that I am speaking sarcastically from a place of not receiving sufficient gratitude -- quite the contrary!  I am actually talking about the almost obsessive inability of Israelis to accept the humble "todah."

I was in the US army, as was my husband.  "Blue" states, such as Maryland, don't make it public practice to show effusive gratitude to military service members -- at least not in the cities, and not at the airport.  So when I flew to Dallas for my work years ago, I was struck dumb and got a lump in my throat the size of Texas when I saw tens of people applauding soldiers who stepped off a flight from Afghanistan.  Since that time, I go out of my way to tell a kid in uniform that I appreciate what he is doing for us.  You should see the shy, sweet smiles I get from young US soldiers when they hear that message.

Naturally, since I've come to live in Israel, I am deeply grateful to the boys and girls who guard our borders and our cities, and make it possible for me to sleep at night.  I often say to an IDF soldier, "Todah al ha-sherut shelcha la-aretz sheylanu!"  Thank you for your service to our country.  If he is a child of immigrants, the soldier "gets it," and is grateful for my gratitude.  But if he's been in Israel for several generations, the conversation might go like this:

"About what?  What did I do?"

Your military service, defending our country."

[Closeup to look of total incredulity:]  "Everybody does it.  You have to."

"That doesn't mean I can't be grateful."  [Incredulity deepens here.]  "It is halacha for you to treat your wife with respect.  That doesn't mean she can't show gratitude that you do."  [Incredulity lightens only slightly at this point.]

"America'im," he says, with a shake of the head.

"Yeah -- can't live with 'em, can't kill 'em," I respond, quoting my favorite Tom Arnold line from the movie True Lies.  Now he really doesn't understand me, as few jokes translate easily between languages; so the conversation is over.

A sweet variation on this conversation happens when I go out with organizations such as Standing Together to take pizza and ice cream or hot soup to the soldiers at various checkpoints throughout Israel.  When we thank them, they immediately turn the gratitude back on us:  "No, we are thankful to you!  It's you who are doing so much!"

Rabbi Yisroel Miller, a prolific author on Jewish topics and nephew of the late Rav Avigdor Miller, says it something like this.  It is hard for human beings to accept gratitude.  We tend to say things like "it's not that big a deal," or "I didn't do so much."  Rav Miller says that when someone says "thank you" to us, there is only one correct response:  "You're welcome."

My rav, Rabbi Menachem Goldberger, goes Rav Miller one better (in my humble opinion).  When someone says thank you to him, Rav Goldberger says "Baruch tihiyeh."  This expression accepts the thank you, and reflects blessings back onto the person who expressed gratitude, sort of "you're welcome" with a bracha.

It is important for Jews to be grateful, and to share that gratitude.  Our very name -- Yehudi -- comes from the Hebrew word for gratitude.  Gratitude is fundamental to who we are, and means so much more than "thx."  It means admission that we know someone has given us a hand.  It means acknowledgement that we can't function without each other.  Without this small word, we fail to be as civilized as Hashem has asked us to be.

The Dearly Beloved pointed out another fact about rebuffed gratitude.  As Rabbi David Fohrman explains (in a long lecture that I cannot do justice to in this short essay), the reason it is hard for us to say "thank you" is that it creates an imbalance between us, one that our egos cannot easily countenance.  When we say "you're welcome," we are back in balance again.  (It works that way with "I'm sorry" as well.)  I paid you for the favor you did for me by acknowledging it.  If you refuse my thanks, the imbalance remains.

So while I'm not sure that we need every American product -- some expressions are a little more superficial than the Israelis can handle, and more power to them for that -- I would like to see the good ol' USA's heavy usage of the gratitude exchange become more prevalent here.

Our soldiers, airmen, sailors, policemen and firemen deserve to hear it.  So do our teachers and rabbis, our friends and spouses, and especially our children.  As the Dearly Beloved says to our sons:  "World peace begins at our table."
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