A few days ago, a colleague and I were schmoozing before school. She was trying to decide what to speak about at her pulpit this Shabbat. I suggested tying in Thanksgiving, families coming together, reconciling. Her response: “We’re not there yet.”
Yes, in the journey, we are not there yet. At least not with the Joseph stories. Last week, in Parashat VaYishlach, Jacob and Esau reconciled after many years. They came together to bury their father Issac, and to bury their differences. Not an easy feat after all that Jacob stole from Esau.
And so the Joseph saga begins in Parashat Vayeishev. His mother has just died while giving birth to his baby brother. The text actually says that his father Jacob loved him the best and Jacob gave Joseph a fancy tunic, a coat of many colors. Joseph has dreams that his brothers will bow down to him, and he is arrogant or immature enough to tell them. So what do the brothers do when they have a chance? First they think of killing him. Then they throw him in a pit. Then they decide to sell him to Midianite traders. (Most of my 5th graders will say that they thought of doing this to their little siblings at one time or another.) And as a final blow, they break their father’s heart by tell him that his favorite son is dead. This is far from reconciliation. But it’s coming. Wait a few weeks.
“We are not there yet.” Maybe that is the point. It is Thanksgiving, our quintessential American holiday about religious freedom. This year it falls on the second day of Hanukah, our quintessential Jewish holiday celebrating our fight for religious freedom. (Is there any one on this planet who has not heard that Thanksgiving and Hanukah have collided to create Thanskgivikah for this year only?) The time dictates that we get there, that we put on our best face and come together. If we learn nothing about family life in the book of Bereshit, it is that families will come together in the end. Well, maybe not Cain and Abel, but certainly in the line of Abraham.
This time of year, I always think about the movie Avalon, by Barry Levenson (a nice Jewish boy). There is the famous scene where the brother who stayed in the city is late to Thanksgiving dinner because he can’t find his brother’s house in the rich suburbs. (It was a pre-cell phone world.) When he walks in, he sees that everyone has started eating, and he points his finger and utters the now famous line, “You cut the turkey!” And with that, more than just the turkey is cut. The family is sliced apart forever.
So this Thanksgiving, let’s act a bit better than Jacob’s boys and Avalon’s boys. Let’s put differences aside, smile when an old criticism is repeated, light our candles with a smile, and remember, if our ancestors can find peace and forgiveness, certainly we can too. And remember, don’t cut the turkey until everyone has arrived.
Last night I came home to the news that an extended family member had died. Phil Merker was 91. I didn’t know Phil well. He was a nice man. (And he must have passed that along, because his children are nice.) Nice goes far with me! When I last saw him a year ago at Thanksgiving, he looked dapper. Most of us were casually dressed, but he had a suit jacket and bow tie on. He told us about his life in his retirement apartment. Every afternoon included a little vodka. I think that is what kept him going all these years. Along with his children and grandchildren. It is times like these that I would like to believe in Olam HaBah — the World to Come. I would like to think that Phil is reunited with his beloved Alta, sharing a little afternoon vodka somewhere.