When the matriarch dies who is left in charge?
In this weeks’ parshah Chaya Sarah (the life of Sarah) we learn of the death of Sarah, the matriarch, the purchase of her burial place and the immediate need to find Isaac a wife. All those things happen in this portion and more (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18). Sarah the matriarch, it was said, lit the Shabbat candles with such conviction, such faith, such holiness that they remained lit all through the week. Sarah the matriarch, may her memory be for a blessing, had her flaws but is remembered with reverence in this parshah and then we discover who her successor was to be as Rivka’s story will unfold.
What better time to think about handing down the maternal tasks than at Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is celebrated primarily in Canada and the United States, although there are also celebrations in Liberia, the Netherlands and Norfolk Island. The first Thanksgiving in Canada was in 1578, not to celebrate the harvest but the survival of Frobisher on his third dangerous journey from England through the storms and ice. It was not just a feast but also a service of communion – the first held in the territory. The Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October, which is the same day as the United States celebrates Columbus Day.
In the United States, the first Thanksgiving was marked in Florida in 1565 by Spanish explorers and at various times in other places and always as a celebration of a successful harvest and gratitude. Abraham Lincoln, influenced by Sarah Josepha Hale, in 1863 proclaimed that the date of Thanksgiving (as an attempt to unify the States) was to be the final Thursday in the month of November. It remained that way until December 26, 1941 (under the Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) when a bill was signed by Congress to make the fourth Thursday in November the official day in order to give the economy a boost. And so it is!
Maybe it will work this year as well – the economic boost part!
Aside from the wonderful coincidence (or is it) of Sarah (Hale) persuading Abraham (Lincoln) to unify Thanksgiving, just what does this have to do with this lovely and important parshah?
It is on Thanksgiving that we gather together and pass on the traditions of family and friends. It is a day of gratitude as we sit around the table or tables and eat recipes that have been handed down from generations. I am thinking of my mom’s cauliflower salad, my sister-in-laws Jello mold, the stuffing from Aunt Tillie or the way my friend Joseph put an onion in the turkey’s hollow – all these things that we bring to the table and embellish with our stories. That is what makes this holiday ours. And what has happened during the year, and who is no longer at the table, and who is new to the table and what we all have to be grateful about.
Sarah the matriarch handed the torch to Rivka, although she never met her. But we know that Rivka moved into her house, her tent, and took on the task of continuing the family. Gathered around the table in our house we use the silverware that was my grandma Mabel’s and the candlesticks that belonged to Roger’s mom. I think of the cake that Belle Price made every year with a small piece missing from the corner as she couldn’t bear to think it wouldn’t taste good so she sampled it. I see my father’s face smiling from my memory at his gathered clan and the descendants he didn’t know he would have that carry his name and joy of laughter. And I struggle through his job of carving the turkey – highly inadequate but doing his job as best I can.
Thanksgiving is sacred in our house. It has grown through the years to include the families that our family has grown and their extended ones as well. The gathering of the harvest is the crop that is the family and friends we have nurtured through the years and we are grateful. Thanksgiving is Sukkot in spirit and in plentitude.
So who is in charge when the matriarch dies? Not just those who tend the house and environs, but all of us. Sarai (Sarah) made the ultimate journey with Abram (Abraham) and it ends in this week’s parashah, but her progeny continued that trip.
Another thing to give thanks for!
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving.