Thanksgiving Message

Judaism is all about finding the connections in our world. Over the last few weeks, in the countdown to Thanksgiving, I have been giving a lot of thought to the dynamics between the blessings I receive, which in turn cause me to give thanks. As I have considered these values and dynamics, I was drawn into the nexus between an episode of “Dear Hank and John (Green)”, a line from the text Elu D’varim and a story and story teller from The Moth Radio Hour program. In episode 291 of their podcast, Hank and John Green debate what a “Dear Hank letter” would be (as opposed to a Dear John letter).  They decide that a “Dear Hank letter” would be someone writing a thank you to a person who can’t possibly be of service, someone who can’t do anything to help you. This thank you is not transactional, simply an act of appreciation for someone who has done something for you in the past.

One morning as we recited the text of Elu D’varim, I realized that the “Dear Hank Letter” embodied an important Jewish value and Jewish act. In this text, we say that “ulvayat hamet” – escorting the dead- is one of the ten things we do that makes an impact in This World but also accrue merit in the World to Come. It is our responsibility to make sure that everyone who dies, has a graceful, dignified burial. We often say that is an act of caring that cannot be repaid. Like the Dear Hank Letter, the person who has died has no way of saying thank you.

The connection between the Dear Hank Letter and ulvayat hamet/escorting the dead took on greater depth and meaning in the wake of learning of another death. For a number of years I have retold a story of Tee Dixon that I heard on The Moth Storytelling show.  In her story, Tee Dixon is working as an Emergency Room Trauma doctor. A grievously injured teenager comes in and her survival is far from certain. Tee cares for her through many tense days until the girl is able to leave the ICU. It is a story of giving and not knowing or even being aware of the depth of the gift. Tee was not expecting thanks; she was just giving her life and blessing in the face of death and curse. Incredibly she crossed paths with the teen a year later. She was unsure how the teen knew her, the teen had been unconscious the whole time. “You kept talking to me and calling me by name. You were so gentle and kind. Of course, I remember your voice.” It’s the opposite of the Dear Hank Letter. Tee heard thank you from the teen. Over the years, I have shared it as a reminder of the impact of our voice and how we speak with people.

This is not the end of the story. Just a few months ago, I caught a replay of the story and my heart broke. The producers shared that since the story’s release, the storyteller, Tee Dixon had died. While I have been using the story to teach one set of values, suddenly I found it now embodied a powerful dynamic of being thankful but not being able to say thank you. Now, when I tell the story, I am thinking of it as a “Dear Hank Letter”. Unlike the teen in the story, I can’t even meet Tee Dixon by chance. I really have no way to say thank you for the gift of that story beyond telling it and living it out as I cross paths with people in the course of life. As an act of Ulvayat haMet, I feel an extra push, to show that I have taken her story to heart and work to bring it into the world.

This is not really a Thanksgiving story. Yet, it is my hope and prayer that it energizes your observance of this special American holiday. As you consider this dynamic of giving and receiving, of blessing and appreciation, I hope you will not just get stuck in food and gathering and parades and sports, and move beyond pshat/surface activities of Thanksgiving. Let us build on our words of thanks with actions of appreciation honoring the love and light we experience by expanding it into our world.