Thank You (Even Though You Messed Up)

This year, tens of millions of Americans will celebrate a Thanksgiving that will feel like anything but the familiar holiday that so many cherish and love.  Rather than enjoying traditional family reunions and football gatherings, families and friends will unite virtually, using all of the devices and tools with which we have become so accustomed over the past nine months. While this modified version of Thanksgiving may feel inauthentic in every way, it need not distract us from the principle theme of the day.

The sacred obligation to recognize and express one’s gratitude is a defining characteristic of every Jew. Indeed, every day begins with the words “modeh ani” (“thank you…”) and our daily liturgy, rituals, and obligations serve to constantly reflect the preeminent requirement to be grateful and appreciative.  It is axiomatic that the obligation to express one’s gratitude applies whenever one is the beneficiary of another’s thoughtfulness, kindness, and generosity.  As Jews however, we are encouraged to consider the virtue of expressing gratitude more generally, even when we fail to experience any benefit due to the actions of another. Perhaps, for the purpose of defining הכרת הטוב in its purest sense, intentions are, in fact, “good enough.”

Please take a moment to enjoy this short film, which I believe so powerfully and aptly captures this idea.

In Shemos 22:30, the Torah teaches, וְאַנְשֵׁי־קֹדֶשׁ תִּהְיוּן לִי וּבָשָׂר בַּשָּׂדֶה טְרֵפָה לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ לַכֶּלֶב תַּשְׁלִכוּן אֹתוֹ.  “You are to be my holy people, so do not eat the meat of an animal torn by wild beasts, rather throw it to the dogs.”  The Torah is teaching that an animal that is killed in a manner other than through a proper ritual slaughter is forbidden for consumption, but may be fed to one’s dog.   At first glance, the Torah is not directing us to offer this prize to any dog in particular. To the contrary, the point simply seems to be that while this sheep is forbidden for human consumption, it is permissible to derive benefit by feeding it to one’s dogs.

The דעת זקנים however suggest that the Torah is directing one to offer this carcass to the sheepdog. The very dog that was responsible to guard and protect this sheep from dangerous predators is to be offered this sheep as a reward. Why would the Torah instruct one to reward the dog in these circumstances? After all, were it not for the dog’s incompetence and failure, this very sheep would still be alive.  What did the dog do to “deserve” receiving this generous bonus?  The דעת זקנים explains that in all likelihood, this dog regularly carries out its responsibilities with devotion and loyalty, but is hardly, if ever, recognized for its achievements. Day in and day out, the dog serves as an effective guardian and protector of the sheep but does not receive any positive words of encouragement, nor expressions of appreciation from its owner. And so, at the very moment at which one’s natural inclination is to express disappointment and outrage at the failure of another, the Torah redirects this instinct and suggests that this would be a perfect time to step back and merely say “thank you.”

Needless to say, this particular prescription would not necessarily meet the satisfaction of animal trainers, nor would it necessarily yield the results one would anticipate from a regulated animal conditioning program. It seems clear however that the Torah is showcasing this example as a display of what we can and should strive to achieve in our interactions and dealings with other people. The Torah is calling upon us to resist the inclination and challenge the instinct to express words of rebuke and disdain when disappointed by the actions or inactions of another. Rather, the Torah reminds us to stop and ask ourselves whether this might be the perfect opportunity to simply say “thank you.”  “Thank you for your efforts, thank you for your thoughtfulness and, most importantly, thank you for all of those other times you got it right.”

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