Thirteen years ago, a lovely couple saved my life and I never thanked them.
It was 2006 and I was a co-captain of the Tufts University Swim Team. Earlier that day I had traveled to Western Massachusetts for our division championships at Williams College. Though I had qualified for the meet the previous year, an injury at the 11th hour had sidelined me late in my final season and I had failed to make the cut. That didn’t mean, however, that I didn’t want to be there cheering my teammates on.
So, like we did every year, those of us who were not competing rented a house nearby so we could rush to the poolside each morning of the three-day competition in solidarity with those who were swimming. This particular year, the house that we had rented was over the border in Vermont, at least a forty-five-minute drive from Williams.
One evening, a day into the competition, I heard that a blizzard was likely. But I was determined to stay and watch the whole meet. I knew that my two door, ten-year-old Acura, likely couldn’t handle well in the snow but after calling around to a few hotels in the area and learning they were all booked up, I knew that if I was going to be sleeping somewhere, it would likely have to be on the other side of the mountain in that crowded ski lodge with my team. Three of my friends piled into my car, and we started the long, slow journey up the hillside.
It took about halfway up the mountain to realize we were really in trouble. My car kept skidding. I decided to drive with my hazard lights on, both to help make sure that I was better seen by those around me and because in my mind it somehow gave me permission to drive five miles an hour with a chain of cars behind me.
Eventually it got too much and I pulled over to the side of the road to ask my passengers what we should do. By this time, I was convinced we were in danger. We couldn’t make it up the mountain. And it would be dangerous to go back down. Even if we made it back to Williams, where would we go? We didn’t have enough gas to run the car all night to keep it warm enough for us to sleep in.
Deep in conversation, I didn’t notice a car had pulled behind me and had started vigorously flashing his brights.
Seeing him get out of his car, I decided to do the same.
“You Ok?” he asked.
I told him that we were heading over the mountain and that I was worried we weren’t going to make it.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, “Follow me. I live at the next street on the right. Come, have a break at my house, and then you can be on your way.”
Maybe because we were smart, or maybe because we were stupid, we trusted him. We followed him around the bend, into a development at the end of his unplowed road.
When we got to his house, his wife greeted us, made us tea, and demanded we stay the night. She showed us pictures of her kids, both of which were in college. In hindsight, I realize this was her effort to explain to us the urgency of her request. It was as if she were saying “I’m a parent, so do yours a favor and listen to me.”
And we did.
I called my teammates who had rightly left earlier for the lodge and told them we would not be coming. Then, my friends and I found couches and floorspace in her den and went to sleep, a little afraid I was now a character in Eli Roth’s next horror film in the Hostel franchise, but mostly relieved I was out of the driver's seat.
As the sun rose and I looked out at the foot of snow on the ground, I realized I had somehow dodged a bullet. My car could not have made it much further without skidding off the road. I came to realize that morning that this house marked the boundary point between where civilization seemed to end and the truly rural areas of our trip would begin. If I had continued and there was a problem, I would likely not have had cell-phone service.
Even at the time, I knew that this couple likely saved mine and my friend’s lives.
That morning over breakfast we thanked them. Then, we took down their information on a sheet of paper and headed out for our final day of cheering. Walking toward the car, they impressed upon me that we shouldn’t be strangers. Driving back to Williamstown, the four of us brainstormed ways to say thank you. Would flowers be enough? Maybe a donation in their name? No matter what, a thoughtful note was in order. What kindness, what risk, these strangers took in helping us!
But that afternoon, I lost the slip of paper with their information. I’m not sure I realized it until I got back to Somerville and searched frantically through my car, bags, and pocket. But it was gone, and so was any chance to adequately thank them for saving our lives. From time to time, I think of them. I can’t describe them. I can picture their den but not their house. I have no idea which route I took up that mountain to even find the town where they lived.
But their openness that day, their willingness to trust us and to help us in our time of need, has stayed with me. In fact, it shaped me. Yet, I have no way to thank them for it.
I imagine everyone here has been in a situation like mine. As we live our lives, people will float in and out of them. Some will be permanent fixtures, others will make guest appearances, and in those short interactions, some will do things that will change us, for better or worse.
As we live, we accumulate a series of unfinished tasks, loose threads, left undone by time and circumstance that we have no means to sew. For me, it was a sort of unrealized gratitude. I owe this couple my thanks but have no way to deliver it. It’s here with me, but I have nothing I can do with it.
Rosh Hashanah is a time to reach out to those in our past and bring closure to unfinished sentiments. It’s not just the season to call someone up to apologize (though that’s very important) but also to praise them, to thank them. This is a season to let out the words and thoughts that are better seen by others. If this season is about completing unfulfilled projects, I want to know how we find closure with those we might never see again. How can we thank someone, who isn’t there?
Though my story is unique, I imagine many here are thinking of people they wish they could thank. Perhaps it's an old teacher you lost touch with, a mentor who died long ago. Maybe someone saved your life but then faded into the crowd or a doctor put you on a path to healing, but you don’t remember his or her name.
For me, as I imagine it might be for you, there a guilt in the midst of unfinished business that festers. Soon, the gratitude you owe stops feeling like a gift you want to give and begins to become a burden you carry. Normally, it feels meritorious to give thanks, but the longer you hold onto it without sharing it, the more you feel like with that “thanks” should come an apology - for the sin of ungratefulness, for the sin of thoughtlessness, for taking their kindness for granted.
Our tradition has much to say about the act of giving thanks, called in Hebrew “Hakarat Hatov.” Not only are the majority of our prayers about thanking God for the opportunities we have – in the morning we thank God for our bodies working well, the ability to stand firm, even our breath – but there are countless times in our tradition where we observe acts of thanksgiving. Tomorrow, for example we will read about a feast of thanksgiving that Abraham arranges after the birth of his son Isaac.
Giving thanks is particularly important because it shapes our character. Gratitude and humility are inextricably linked. Only if we are able to move our own wants and desires out of the way can we make room to see those things for which we should give thanks.
For this reason, we are taught in our Talmud:
“What does a good guest say? ‘How much trouble my host goes through for me. How much meat he has offered. How much wine he has set before me. How many cakes he has brought before me. And all of this trouble he went through for me.’ But an inconsiderate guest, what does he say? ‘What trouble has my host gone through? I have eaten one piece of bread and a single piece of meat. I have had but one cup of wine. All the trouble the host has gone to has been only for his family.’” (Brachot 58a)
But while gratitude is a spiritual practice, shaping us and helping us grow into more open and appreciative people, it often feels incomplete unless we can share it. Thinking about the kindness of a host is important. But telling them what dinner meant to you, that means your gratitude can impact another.
So imperfect as it may be, we must find avenues to let our gratitude out, even if we cannot ever share it directly with the person with which we are grateful.
Rabbi Alan Moranis tells the story of a famous violinist who stood before an audience and began to play. No sooner had he begun than he popped a string. Now, he was famous enough that he could have stopped the symphony and took a break, replacing that string. But instead, he decided to play with the three remaining. In some cases, he was able to find the notes he needed on other strings. In other cases, he re-composed parts of the piece in his head to fit with the stings he had.
When he finished the audience was in awe. They had witnessed true genius. They began applauding wildly, but quickly, the violinist signaled for them to stop, ““You know,” he said, “sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much beautiful music you can still make with what you have left.”
In the remaining time we have, I want to reflect on what beautiful music we still can make with our unrealized gratitude.
As religious individuals, the first place we can put our thanks is toward the cosmos. In the absence of a person to give thanks, we can offer that thanks to God. I've always been struck by a teaching about our patriarch Abraham, who famously used to take wayfarers in. He would feed them, give them something to drink, and allow them to rest. But when they finished, he would ask them if they wanted to pray, thanking God for their food. If a person prayed, he would let them go. But if they turned and thanked him for the hospitality, declining his offer to pray, he would charge them for the food and supplies he gave to them. Quickly people would realize, that they needed to join him in prayer.
Abraham is an extreme case, but his story teaches us an important lesson about where to place our thanks. Abraham understood that much of life is luck and he was a product of a bounty that is not only his doing. That is why he wanted to pass the gratitude forward to God. We live in world of blessing. A person’s kindness, their openness, their warmth is their own. But it’s also an echo of sparks of kindness, openness, and warmth within us, woven into our DNA by God.
The couple who took me in that night certainly deserves praise. But in the absence of finding them, I can thank the source of all goodness, the creator of all kindness, to progenitor of all love. God provides me a place to put my unrealized gratitude.
But God is not the only answer. Often, we can put our thanks to good use in this world. I recently heard a story about Rabbi Yisrael Zeev Gustman, head of Yeshivat Netzach Yisrael, who, despite his stature and renown would water the bushes in front of his school everyday. When asked why, he told the story of fleeing Vilna during the Holocaust. In one instance he was almost caught, but for a large growth of bushes that he hid behind. For those reason, seeing bushes reminded him of this past and as a way to honor these bushes that saved his life, he would water the ones in his midst.
Rabbi Gustman’s approach teaches us that our unrealized gratitude does have a home. We may not have an avenue to return to the source of our thanks, but we can take the spirit of our appreciation and spread it forward. That night, that couple taught me to be more hospitable, more open, more kind. I find myself from time to time, channeling them in my own day to day interactions. I may not be able to thank them directly for being good Samaritans but in way, I can show them gratitude every time I direct a lost tourist or check on someone on the side of the road. I thank them every time I interact with our TNT teens and with every guest who I invite to stay at my house.
But even with these steps, I understand that a piece of me needs to keep searching. For those of us who have the luxury of losing touch with someone rather than losing them all-together, the best way to deal with unrealized gratitude is to try to find them.
Many may know the famous story of Rahab, who appears in the Biblical book of Joshua. She too took in wayfarers. Living in Jerico, she lodged two of Joshua’s spies who were preparing to besiege the city. Soon, the residents of the city caught on that they were there and sought to kill these spies, but Rahab helped them escape, thus saving their lives. Here the story ends and Rahab disapears from our narrative.
What many do not know is that our ancient Rabbis, many years later, imagine that the story continues. After the city is besieged, those spies go looking for Rahab and find her. In a fairy-tale turn, Rahab ends up joining the Israelites, converting to Judaism, and eventually marrying Joshua.
I bring up this story, not because I assume any of this will happen to you, but because it shows there is tremendous power in conveying our gratitude. Old connections can form new connections and renewed friendships, and in Rahab’s case, even love.
But even if we never find that person, the simple act of searching can be powerful. To find someone you have to tell your story, often over and over again. You have to ask for help, using the resources at our disposal. When we do this, we bring the story of another’s kindness and love into the light and it instructs all who hear it about how to act in the world.
And it’s for these reason that I need your help.
I’m going to post my story after Rosh Hashanah in the hopes that I can find this couple. And I hope you can help me. When I do, if you see it, please share it. And even if I can’t find them, the simple act of looking for them will at least bring me closer to conveying to them adequate gratitude.
Each of you can do the same. Seek out that person you need to find and even if you never connect, use the processes of searching as a way to grow and teach.
I don’t know if I will ever find that couple again. And that’s OK. Our tradition understands. An unfinished duty, a job half done is still better than ignoring the task at all. As Rabbi Tarfon taught us nearly 2000 years ago, “It is not your job to finish the task, nor are you free to desist from it.”
If you can’t thank someone specifically, show thanks in different ways. Each one of us has the agency and power to not give up. In this season which aims to bind up the “should haves” and “what ifs” of our past, don’t despair just because you don’t have all the tools at your disposal. You may owe things to others that they will never receive. That’s OK. Half of the journey is figuring out what to do with them.