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.