Social Duty or Spiritual Discipline?

Image: “THANK YOU” written by a fountain pen. Artwork: marcelmajid/pixabay.

This has been a challenging summer. On May 1 I got really, really sick. On June 30 my mother died. Through it all, people have been very kind to me, understanding about cancelled classes, sending sweet notes, and supporting my local family through shiva and mourning. I realized anew what a remarkable and loving support system we have in our congregation, Temple Sinai, and in an extended “family of choice” who have been rocks for me and Linda.

Now I’m working my way through the thank-you notes, which is something I learned from my mother. Her lessons did not cover social media, but I decided that if someone reached out via social media, it was appropriate to say “thank you” through that medium. Real visits, real cards and letters, and real food require more than email, though: for those I’ve been writing traditional thank-you notes.

As I’ve been writing them, I’ve had a chance to reflect on something I never noticed before: thank-you notes have a function beyond saying “thank you.” That’s their main job, of course, but I have benefitted from taking time to go down the list and reflect briefly on what someone did for me before I have written them a note. This one sent a note from vacation – how kind, to take time out from vacation! Another sent over food, and was careful to observe my dietary needs, which are complicated since May.  Yet another sent me photographs she thought I’d enjoy, from when my own children were little – how thoughtful! A busy colleague, a solo rabbi in a congregation, took time out to write words of comfort tailored just to me, and I know he has so little time.

All of these provided comfort when they first arrived. Now, as I write the notes, they provide more, since I am less in shock and more in a place to appreciate the care and thought. The thank-you notes are forcing me to pay attention to the people who took time to send me affection.

These little notes that I wrote so dutifully as a child and as a young woman are now much, much more than a duty. They are an opportunity to learn many important things, not least of which is that I have much for which to be grateful.

Thus I have begun to understand that thank-you notes are a spiritual discipline. They are not exciting to write, far from it, and they can be positively annoying when I cannot find an address. But there is a huge benefit from going down the list, from note to note, writing a few every day, inscribing the envelope, thinking what to say, even slowing down so my penmanship is legible.

Human relationships are holy. That is one of the great messages of Torah, that every encounter is a potential moment for holiness. Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pekuda, a great medieval teacher of ethics, taught that to cultivate an awareness of the presence and goodness of God, we should be mindful of the kindnesses done to us by other human beings and take special care to say “thank you” for those kindnesses. This tiny preliminary step is critical for our spiritual development according to Bachya.

In a few weeks we will begin the month of Elul, the annual month of soul-searching and repair of regrets. Perhaps this year we can also make it a month of gratitude, a month of thank-you notes, a month of growth.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

11 thoughts on “Social Duty or Spiritual Discipline?”

  1. Yet again I thank YOU! I have stepped so far from the same lesson my mother taught me. As a child it never dawned on me that it was anything more than a response. However, you are so right, in the moment we are so overwhelmed by what is going on, whether it be a birthday, a wedding, or a death, that later the simple act of a thank you note forces us to focus on the act of kindness, and more importantly the relationship. So thank you for showing me what my mother was trying to teach. Because I never practice what I was taught, I never realized her lesson into its full fruition. I am blessed by your words once again!

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    1. I think age figures into these things as well – this is a lesson I am only now learning myself! Thank you for your kind words. One of the wonders of comments is that when readers reflect back to me, it helps me learn, too!

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  2. Thank You for this beautiful blog. And I want to write a ‘thank you’ message to you.Thank you for writing and remembering me of Jewish backgrounds. Thank you for just being there floating over the internet and sometimes suddenly make me reflect, laugh or cry after reading one of your blogs. Wish you all the luck and recovery!

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  3. Always a pleasure to read your thoughts, so often a reflection of my own childhood, but with kindness and insight.
    So grateful to be your “adopted” kid!
    Thank you! And continue to feel better!

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