I learned about a new holiday this past week – Friendsgiving. Friendsgiving is Thanksgiving, but for friends. In the past five years, Friendsgiving has gone from a fringe holiday, celebrated by a few people who couldn’t make it home for the holiday, to a rather common in-addition-to-Thanksgiving event.
Instagram has about a million posts about Friendsgiving, and if you use this little neat tool called Google Trends – Google Trends tells you how often people Google certain words or phrases. You Google to know how people Google. It’s kind of like reading a book about reading books – Anyway, search for Friendsgiving on Google Trends and you will see a huge and growing spike over the past five or so years.
The way it works is that the week before Thanksgiving, people get together, friends get together, co-workers get together, for a meal, usually with a turkey, it’s usually a little more toned down than a Thanksgiving meal, which by the way, I don’t have any sympathy to all the people complaining about the amount of work and the cost of Thanksgiving meals. We Jews do this every week – twice! It’s called Shabbos!
Well, there’s a lot of discussion about how this new holiday came to be. Dr. Matthew Dennis, an expert in holiday history (and my parents think I don’t have a real job), claims that all holidays have gone from holidays to holiday seasons. Halloween is no longer a one-day thing, it’s a season, which includes a number of parties and events revolving around a Halloween theme. And the same, he suggests, is true for Thanksgiving. Friendsgiving is just another way of extending the season of Thanksgiving.
But as Professor Dennis points there is another reason that may contribute to the rise of Friendsgiving and that is our changing relationship to family. Whereas, ‘Home for Thanksgiving’ was a mantra in the past, encouraging people to travel from all over the country and to come back home for this special holiday, nowadays, for many people, non-relatives assume an even more important role than family, especially true for the younger generation. Later marriages, less, or no children, living far for home, for all these reasons and more, a gathering with friends, for so many, is more meaningful than a gathering with family. In a similar vein, I’ve recently learned a new word; framily, friends who are so close that they’re our family.
In ancient Greek philosophy friendship is elevated as one of the greatest virtues, but in Judaism, friendship does not play a very significant role. In fact, friendship is presented in the Torah, in a negative light. Although there is a famous and positive description of a very deep bond between King David and Yonatan, but the only time a Biblical character has a relationship described as a friendship, it’s describing how Yehuda was alienated from his family and instead befriended ish adulami, someone from outside of the faith. (Leon Kass’s observation, The Beginning of Wisdom)
The Torah almost sounds like it’s laying out two polarities; we are either a family-oriented people or a friend-oriented people, but we can’t be both. And if it really is a choice between the two, the Torah decisively comes down on the side of family. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,
“[In] Judaism, the home and the family became the central setting of the life of faith. In the only verse in the Hebrew Bible to explain why G-d chose Abraham, He says: “I have known him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the L-rd by doing what is right and just.” Abraham was chosen not to rule an empire, command an army, perform miracles or deliver prophecies, but simply to be a parent.”
This emphasis on family is one of the most beautiful contributions that the Torah has had on civilization. The ongoing role of a mother on her son’s upbringing, an idea that is repeated over and over in the Torah, the sacred role that marriage has in one’s life, as exemplified by each of our forefathers, these are Jewish ideals which have impacted the world over. And it’s that sense of being one family that has kept us together in two thousand years of exile. Without a doubt, Judaism comes out strong on the elevation of family over friends, on the idea that our identity is defined by those with whom we share our blood.
It’s a beautiful ideal, but it also has tragic casualties. Because while the Torah paints a beautiful portrait of a father and mother, of a child, or a household filled with children, not everyone fits neatly into that picture. Not everyone has that perfect family, or any family at all. And in such an intensely family-driven society, where does that leave those people? Those of us that are single? Those of us that are childless? Those of us that are estranged?
In our parsha, we see this struggle come to a head. Rachel, Yakov’s beloved wife, watches with growing frustration as her sister, Leah, has child after child, while she remains childless. Eventually her frustration turns to despair and she turns to her husband and exclaims, “Hava li banim, give me children, v’im ayin, and if not, meisah anochi, I will die!”
Those are powerful words! If I don’t have children, I will die. Her words speak to the existential loneliness that a childless person experiences. And that loneliness, and emptiness is only amplified by the children of her sister, by the fact that she was living in a culture that elevates family to such a great extent. Without children, she was saying, my life is devoid of all meaning.
And although we don’t learn Jewish law from these biblical stories, Rav Moshe Feinstein, probably the greatest Halachic decisor of the 20th century, invoked Rachel’s pitiful cry in his most hotly debated legal ruling. Rav Moshe Feinstein allowed, under certain special circumstances, for a married woman, whose husband was incapable of impregnating her, to receive artificial insemination from a non-Jew. He permitted this based on an extensive analysis of Jewish law, but in his defense against his many critics, he invoked Rachels’ cry that ‘without children, I am as good as dead’ as a justification to seek out leniency, seeing in her words the depth of despair that her situation caused.
For those of us with that classic model of a family, it’s almost impossible to wrap our heads around the discomfort and pain. Pain that is only amplified every time another Jewish source speaks of the value of family. Those who cannot connect to that idea, whether it’s singlehood or a lack of children, or a lack of connection to one’s family, the words im ayin, if I don’t have this, meisa anochi, my life is devoid of meaning, rings loud.
And yet, as powerful and as impactful as these words are, inasmuch as the Jewish People have elevated the married, and child-filled life above all, the story of Rachel does not end there. Yaakov, her husband, the husband who loved her so much that he agreed to the most preposterous marriage proposal by his scheming father-in-law, the husband who loved so much that he showered love upon her child, Yosef, to the detriment, that same husband responds to her cry in the most shocking fashion. “Hatachat Elokim anochi, am I in the place of G-d?” asks Yaakov, “Asher mana mineich pri-vaten, who held back from you the ability to have children?!”
Now our Sages take him to task for responding so insensitively. “Is this the way to respond to someone in pain?” they ask. Yaakov was certainly mistaken in doing so. But at the same time, our tradition assumes that although the tone was wrong, the message was right. There was something substantial to Yaakov’s response. What was it? What was he trying to convey to his beloved wife in response to her desperate cries?
Some suggest that she wrongly assumed that Yaakov had the power of giving her children, and he was reminding her to turn to G-d and not to him. But Rav Yitzchak Arama, a 15th century Spanish scholar, suggests an alternative and most beautiful understanding of what Yaakov was trying to say. He was telling her, explains Rav Arama, that, “You, Rachel, are misunderstanding what it means to be alive. Your self-identity is somewhat skewed. You are making a mistake by limiting your entire existence to motherhood, when in truth, there is so much else you are able to contribute to society, so much else you are able to do, so much more you able to be! whether or not you have a child. It’s true, one aspect of womanhood is motherhood, but it’s not the full extent of your identity. You are so much more.”
It would seem that Yaakov is presenting the second side of the family argument. Yes, family is paramount in Judaism, and we should never allow that to change. Family is one of the great gifts of Judaism, one of its most beautiful institutions. But at the same time, the need to recognize each person for who they are, whether or not they are linked to a child, whether or not they are linked to a spouse.
I once shared with you a beautiful sermon given by a pastor, apologizing to his congregation for the many times that he elevated family to the detriment of others. I’ll share with you a couple of lines:
“I’m sorry for the ways we unintentionally distanced you from community; the times that we overlooked your deep needs and your unique challenges as we planned and prepared.
I’m sorry for the times you felt like an afterthought in our worship services.
I’m sorry for the times you felt unwelcome or extraneous in our small groups.
I’m sorry for the many times our sermon series lifted up Marriage and Family, and in the process ignored the awkwardness that might create for you.
I’m sorry for the way we so easily defaulted to lazy language that so often excluded you.
You need to know that this was never intentional, but even still I know it is incredibly painful.” (https://johnpavlovitz.com/2015/05/14/a-pastors-apology-to-the-single-community/)
And that is one part of Yaakov’s message, that we, those who are blessed with families, need to be so incredibly sensitive to how we speak and how we interact with those who aren’t. As one single mother recently told me, “I don’t need a meal because I’m single. If you want to invite me over because you want me at your table, let me know.” The words we use that unintentionally hurt, the conversations we have that unintentionally exclude. That’s on us.
And perhaps even more importantly, it is those who do not fit in that model who need to internalize Yaakov’s message. Yaakov, with perhaps the wrong tone, was reminding Rachel and all of us, that just because you do not fit in to this model, does not mean that you are in any way diminished.
I want to conclude by sharing a letter written by Rav Aharon Feldman, the dean of Ner Israel Rabbinical College. He was responding to someone who felt out of place in the Jewish community. This individual prayed every day, he kept the Torah, and he lived an observant lifestyle. So why then did this man not fit in? He was gay and attempting to live a celibate life. Talk about someone feeling left out of the Jewish community; no wife, no children, and gay.
Listen to what Rabbi Feldman writes this young man:
“[You are] beloved in God’s eyes as any other Jew, and [are] responsible as any Jew in all the mitzvos. [You are] obligated to achieve life’s goals by directing [your] life towards spiritual growth, sanctity and perfection of character—no less than … any other Jew. (And) [you] will merit the same share in the world to come which every Jew merits, minimally by being the descendant of Avraham Avinu and maximally by totally devoting [your] life towards the service of God.”
Yes, family is paramount in our worldview. But may we never lose sight, within ourselves and with others, of the significance and greatness that each and every individual possesses.
Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Friendsgiving, and a wonderful Shabbos.