Rabbi Sidney Greenberg tells the story about the freeway near the University of California in Berkeley. It was lined with students before Thanksgiving trying to hitch rides home. The students had displayed large signs with their destinations printed in bold letters. Despite the intense competition for rides, one student got a lift almost as soon as he held up his sign. His sign read: “Mom’s waiting!”
That young man exploited one of our most profound and enduring loves—the love of home. The mere mention of the word “home” evokes an almost mystic reverence and misty nostalgia because home is Mom waiting; home is comfort when bruised; home is sorrow eased and joy enlarged; home is childhood and growing up; home is hot food and warm beds. “Home,” as Robert Frost once said, “is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
And it’s not only humans. In his book, The Territorial Imperative, Robert Ardrey tells about a bird called, the Manx Shearwater form Skokholm Island off the coast of Wales. A Cambridge scientist captured one and took it to Harvard University, tagged it and let it go. The Shearwater was back in its burrow on Skokholm Island 12½ days later. It had flown over 3,000 miles—an average of about 250 miles per day! Such is the draw of home.
So it’s no surprise that no matter where we are in this world where families are so spread out, that if possible, we try to go home for Thanksgiving. And if we can’t be at home with all our loved ones, we call and try to capture being at home, if only for a few moments.
I like to do a Thanksgiving exercise at Thanksgiving dinner each year. We go around the table and everyone says what they have to be especially thankful for this year. Cheryl and I had Thanksgiving dinner with a mixture of about 25 South Africans and native-born Americans. Of course I said that I was so grateful this year for having Cheryl in my life. Her warmth and understanding, her creativity and intelligence, her amazing family and friends have truly made this a great year for me. While almost everyone mentioned that they were grateful for this wonderful country of ours, everyone—without exception—said they were grateful for 2 things: home and family.
The Torah portions we read at this time of the year are also about these 2 things: home and family. Jacob had to leave home because of familial strife, but the lure of home eventually won out and he came back and reconciled with his brother Esav. And this week we read the story of Joseph and his brothers—and you all know about how they were jealous of him and sold him into slavery. There is one word in the aftermath of that story that stuck out as I reviewed it this week and it refused to let go of me. It’s a word that says something wonderful thing about our families—Jewish families.
When the brothers take Joseph’s coat of many colors and dip it in lamb’s blood and give it to their father—the obvious implication being that Joseph was killed by a wild beast—Jacob descends into a deep depression of mourning. The Torah (Gen. 37:35) then tells us: Vayakumu kol banav v’chol b’notav l’nachamo, “All his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him, but he refused.” Wait a second. We know Jacob had 12 sons. But he only had one daughter—Dina. Who were all the daughters mentioned in this verse that arose to comfort him? Rashi, who interestingly enough only had daughters, in his commentary quotes the Midrash (Raba 84:21) that says: “These were his daughters-in-law, for a Jew [literally ‘a person’] does not hesitate to call his son-in-law his son or his daughter-in-law his daughter.”
Wow! “A Jew does not hesitate to call his son-in-law his son or his daughter-in-law his daughter.” If you were to ask most people what is the most strained relationship in families, I bet most people would point to the relationship between children-in-law and parents-in-law. Researchers claim that 60% of all marriages are burdened by struggles with in-laws. That’s why there are so many jokes about mothers-in-law like:
- What do you do if you miss your mother-in-law? Reload and shoot again!
- 2 men were in a pub. One says to his mate, “My mother-in-law is an angel.” His friend replies, “You’re lucky. Mine’s still alive!”
- A guy brings his dog into the vet and says, “Could you please cut my dog’s tail off?” The vet examines the tail and says, “There’s nothing wrong. Why would you want this done?” The man replies, “My mother-in-law is coming to visit, and I don’t want anything in the house to make her think that she’s welcome!”
- My mother-in-law said to me, “I’ll dance on your grave.” I said, “I hope you do. I’m being buried at sea.”
- Behind every successful man stand a devoted wife and a surprised mother-in-law.
- Adam and Eve were the happiest, and the luckiest, couple in the world, because neither of them had a mother-in-law.
But the Torah, according to the Midrash, clearly tells us that in Jacob’s home, in-laws were not “outlaws,” but became family. Jacob is the last of the forefathers of the Jewish people and we are called the Children of Israel—who is Jacob—and not the Children of Isaac or Abraham. Rabbi Joseph Soleveichik explains that this is because Jacob’s family was different—filled with love and connection. Soloveitchik illustrates by pointing out that Jacob was the only patriarch that had a relationship with his grandchildren as we see with Ephraim and Menashe.
This is the Jewish home! It doesn’t mean that there won’t be any misunderstandings, disagreements or arguments. It doesn’t mean that when we get together for holiday meals there won’t be any problems or flare-ups. There was enough of that in Jacob’s home as we all know. But in the end the brothers reconciled and came together. And there is never a mention of strife with an in-law even though it’s the most complicated relationship of all—the one fraught with the most potential for divisiveness.
In my 36 years as a rabbi I have seen many Jewish families and from my humble observations I can say that most Jews come to genuinely love their sons and daughters-in-law. And when there is not love, there is respect—not always, but almost always. Emuna Braverman, in an article titled, “Daughter-in-Law” on Aish.com writes about a friend who comments, “I have amazing daughters-in-law”:
Now it could be that my friend just lucked out. It could be that she just has really exceptional daughters-in-law who never give her any reason for doubt or frustration or any of the other negative emotions that frequently poison this relationship. It could be.
Or—and this is more likely—it could be that my friend made a choice. “These are the women my sons picked and I will love them. I will see their good and only focus on that…I’m going to ignore the petty and the trivial and focus on what really counts...I will take pleasure in the joy they bring to my son.”
I think that this is the decision that wise mothers-in-law make, either consciously or subconsciously…Remember that the choice is in your hands. And that the real road to your son’s continued caring and loyalty, to his ongoing desire to spend time with you is for you to love his wife, your daughter-in-law, fully and unconditionally. Just remind yourself how wonderful she really is.
And this is true as well for a son-in-law, a brother-in-law, a sister-in-law, a father-in-law and a mother-in-law. So yes, on this Thanksgiving weekend let’s make that choice and thank Gd for our in-laws. In a real Jewish home they are just like blood! So look for the good in them, love them and thank Gd for them.
Thanksgiving has always had a special place in my heart. Yes, I love the food: the turkey with its stuffing and cranberry sauce and, for desert, pumpkin pie. Yes, I love getting together with family and friends watching the parade, eating dinner and—of course—the football games—especially, like this year, when the Dallas Cowboys loose!
But as I reflect, there is something much deeper about Thanksgiving that tugs at my soul. There is a special—and I would even call it holy—atmosphere that descends upon America on Thanksgiving. It is, as Dennis Prager is fond of saying, “the one day of the year in which we Jews celebrate the same religious holiday with the rest of America.” It certainly is a religious holiday as we all thank Gd for our blessings.
And, as a Jew, I’m so grateful to America because from colonial days onward, it welcomed Jews when no other country in the world would. And not only did it welcome us, it gave us the freedom and opportunity we hadn’t seen for 2,000 years. In America Gd showers us with so many blessings and, like the Pilgrims of old, we must be able to see that—even in these difficult times. And so this Thanksgiving weekend, let’s thank Gd Almighty for our great nation and the values of freedom and opportunity it stands for. And let us give thanks in our personal lives for home and family and especially our in-laws. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis