Thanks for what?
I’ve known too many people in my life who have a “use them and abuse them” mentality. These egocentrics regard other people as servants and as a means to an end. They make their feelings pretty obvious that our existence revolves around their needs and ambitions. Once we’ve done all we can for them, our usefulness expires. They will find others to use and abuse. These thankless people may regard themselves as geniuses in their game of life, but the Torah regards them as Pharaohs, as arrogant enemies of Hashem.
We read in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, about Joseph’s death and how “a new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph”-- the very Joseph who was the only man who could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and who was appointed viceroy, standing only second to Pharaoh. The Joseph who made the country rich and saved it from ruin; The Joseph about whom all of Egypt heard when his brothers had arrived. Yes, that famous Joseph, with a coat of many colors, who we all still know about thousands of years later, yet, somehow, Pharaoh just couldn’t seem to remember him.
After all, remembering comes with a heavy price - we might have to say “Thank you.” We might have to repay kindness for kindness. And so, the new Pharaoh showed his gratitude by enslaving Israel and murdering their firstborn. Talk about appreciation! Some of our sages explain that the “new Pharaoh” was not a different person at all, but rather the very same Pharaoh who arose with a NEW attitude. Once the bad times were over, he figured the Jews were expendable. He thought himself a G-d and didn’t want to be outdone or overpowered by the people who made him successful. The Torah teaches us a very different lesson about gratitude. After all the Egyptians did to the Israelites over their long years of slavery, the Torah commands us, “You shall not hate an Egyptian, for you were a sojourner in his land” (Deuteronomy 23:8). The Biblical commentator Rashi explains that we are not permitted to despise them because they hosted us in a time of need. The lesson should be clear: If we can’t hate those who tormented us because they were once good to us, imagine how much more we owe those who were good to us. We must appreciate and consider the efforts on their part which made our lives better and easier even if only for a moment. Sometimes it is just a single merciful moment that can save us from despair.
Other examples in Judaism offer us sensitivity training and appreciation: For instance, if we decide to change the mere casing of a mezuzah wherein a holy parchment was once contained, whether we change it to upgrade our decor or if the prior one was rotten or broken, it can’t just be thrown away in a garbage can. There is a respectful means of disposal; Moses wouldn’t strike the waters and turn them to blood because the waters had once saved his life; We hide the challah on Shabbat under a cloth so as not to embarrass it when we first pray over the wine. All out of respect and gratitude. The Torah also prohibits needless destruction, directly or indirectly, of anything that may be of use to people.
Thus, if inanimate objects which served us can’t be dismissed irreverently or disrespected, imagine how much more so are human beings to be treated with appreciation, dignity and gratitude if they helped us. When we are famished, it is easy to thank G-d for the sandwich in front of us. But the Torah commands us to say thank you also when we finish satisfying our appetites.
It is actually only when we are in a perpetual state of gratitude that our best blessings are yet to come. “King Hezekiah had great messianic potential. G-d made great miracles for him...But because he did not sing a song of praise to G-d for the miracle, he was not appointed to be the Mashiach. (Sanhedrin 94a via Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman). Gratitude is a fundamental of Judaism. In fact, the term "Yehudi"-- Jew, comes from the Hebrew name Yehuda, which means thanks and gratitude. It is thus from the tribe of Yehuda that the Mashiach will come.
Everything comes from G-d. Even if we can’t stand the “messengers” He uses to execute His will, we have to be thankful. When we are not, we snub not only those who help us, but G-d as well. The Hebrew word for “thank you” is todah (תודה); When those same letters are permuted, they spell the word dotah (דותה) which means “illness.” When we are unthankful we are like an emotionally “sick” person and we separate ourselves from the Almighty. A thankless society is a Godless society.
It's funny because we often remember what we do for others, even the $5 we lent someone 20 years ago, and insist we are only upset "on principle" that they didn’t pay us back. But when we owe others, we can manufacture excuses a mile a minute as to why the account has been settled. We overvalue ourselves in the giving and undervalue favors when we are taking.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to one thing. Are you a Pharaoh with a short term convenient memory? Have you rewritten history to fit your own narrative wherein you are a superhero and the other is vilified? Or are you a mensch? Are you a grateful person? Is “thank you” on your tongue; and even more importantly, is it in your heart and in your actions.