the congregation of moses

Be Thankful: Hayyei Sarah
By Rabbi Jeremy Szczepanski
November 26, 2016
Thanksgiving was always a favorite holiday of mine growing up. I loved and still love the crisp fall weather, the torturous smells coming from the kitchen, and the fact that as a kid it also meant a four-day weekend. It was a family day, when the only point was to get together, eat a good meal, and enjoy each other's company. As a child, I was blissfully unaware of a certain phenomenon that takes place directly after the Thanksgiving holiday.

In America, the phenomenon that is Black Friday has come and gone. Recently, comedian Marcia Belsky described the day like this: "Black Friday: because only in America people trample each other for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have."

Being thankful for what we already have. This week, in Parashat Hayyei Sarah, we begin by learning of Sarah's death. The Torah recounts throughout chapter twenty-three her age and how Abraham mourned and bewailed her before finally securing a place to bury his beloved wife. And then chapter twenty-four tells us something interesting: "Abraham was old, advanced in age, and Adonai blessed Abraham in everything."

Adonai blessed Abraham in everything. Interesting to note this just after the death and burial of his wife. What does it mean? Our Sages of blessed memory teach us in the midrashic collection Bereishit Rabbah this: "...and Adonai blessed Abraham in everything." Rabbi Levi taught that "in everything" refers to three things: 1.) That he could control his yetzer ha-ra; 2.) That Ishmael did teshuvah while Abraham was still alive; 3.) That Abraham's food stores never ran out. Rabbi Levi taught in the name of Rabbi Hamma, "In everything" means that God did not test Abraham any more after Sarah died.

Abraham being blessed by God did not mean that he had an abundance of wealth, or that he had the latest and greatest whatever back then. According to Rabbi Levi it meant that God helped him to live his life as a good person who could keep his selfish impulses under control, that he did a good enough job raising Ishmael that his son by Hagar eventually mended his wild ways, and that he always had enough sustenance at hand that he didn't have to worry about running out. Furthermore, God had the kindness to cease from testing his faithful servant Abraham, sparing him from further distress. In other words, God blessed Abraham not with abundance, not with more than he already had, but with contentment with what was, what had been, and the people he had in his life.

I wonder if the people who make a spectacle of themselves on shopping days such as Black Friday feel that God has blessed them in any way. I have a hard time understanding why people would give up spending time with family to camp out in the wee hours of the morning for the chance at getting this year's hot ticket item, the latest piece of technology that will be obsolete by the time they leave the store, or simply more "stuff."

Writer Sarah Pruitt explains the backstory on Black Friday as follows: The first recorded use of the term "Black Friday" was applied not to holiday shopping but to financial crisis: specifically, the crash of the U.S. gold market on September 24, 1869. Two notoriously ruthless Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, worked together to buy up as much as they could of the nation's gold, hoping to drive the price sky-high and sell it for astonishing profits. On that Friday in September, the conspiracy finally unraveled, sending the stock market into free-fall and bankrupting everyone from Wall Street barons to farmers.

The most commonly repeated story behind the post-Thanksgiving shopping-related Black Friday tradition links it to retailers. As the story goes, after an entire year of operating at a loss ("in the red") stores would supposedly earn a profit ("in the black") on the day after Thanksgiving, because holiday shoppers blew so much money on discounted merchandise. Though it's true that retail companies used to record losses in red and profits in black when doing their accounting, this version of Black Friday's origin is the officially sanctioned, but inaccurate, story behind the tradition.

In recent years, another myth has surfaced that gives a particularly ugly twist to the tradition, claiming that back in the 1800s Southern plantation owners could buy slaves at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving. Though this version of Black Friday's roots has understandably led some to call for a boycott of the retail holiday, it has no basis in fact.

The true story behind Black Friday, however, is not as sunny as retailers might have you believe. Back in the 1950s, police in the city of Philadelphia used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year. Not only would Philly cops not be able to take the day off, but they would have to work extra-long shifts dealing with the additional crowds and traffic. Shoplifters would also take advantage of the bedlam in stores to make off with merchandise, adding to the law enforcement headache.

By 1961, "Black Friday" had caught on in Philadelphia, to the extent that the city's merchants and boosters tried unsuccessfully to change it to "Big Friday" in order to remove the negative connotations. The term didn't spread to the rest of the country until much later, however, and as recently as 1985 it wasn't in common use nationwide. Sometime in the late 1980s, however, retailers found a way to reinvent Black Friday and turn it into something that reflected positively, rather than negatively, on them and their customers. The result was the "red to black" concept of the holiday mentioned earlier, and the notion that the day after Thanksgiving marked the occasion when America's stores finally turned a profit. (In fact, stores traditionally see bigger sales on the Saturday before Christmas.)

In Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island it is illegal for stores to open on Thanksgiving. This comes in the wake of more and more retailers opening their stores earlier and earlier into Thanksgiving, to encourage shoppers to forgo family time in favor of shopping. Personally, I think this should become a federal law, but that's me. What's more, retail chains such as Costco, Barnes & Noble, Marshalls, and Neiman Marcus have policies that all locations shall remain closed on Thanksgiving. In an interview with Huffington Post, Neiman Marcus spokeswoman Ginger Reed said "We hope our associates enjoy the time with family and friends." On top of that, Neiman Marcus does not open its doors on midnight of Black Friday, but the reasonable hour of 8:00 a.m. Would that more companies followed their example.

We live in a time where people increasingly do not interact with one another, including among family and friends. Most of us have been at gatherings where entire groups of people, rather than talk to one another, sit glued to their devices like drug addicts getting their fix. Family holidays like Thanksgiving, where it used to be nigh impossible to find a store that was open at all to buy a last-minute forgotten can of cranberry sauce, are rapidly becoming the latest shopping days for our increasingly material-obsessed culture.

Whatever great new thing you buy this year, by next year if not sooner it will be obsolete or forgotten and you will be obsessing over the next "new thing." It doesn't matter. It's just stuff, and it can never replace those things in life that are truly important, those principles and morals that separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. They can never supersede those people who are one-of-a-kind, who once they are gone from our lives can never be replaced by the "next new thing." We can't go to the mall and get a newer version of our parents, siblings, spouses, or children. When they are gone, that's it. All we have left of them are the memories. How will we remember our time with them?

That is what the Torah means in telling us that God blessed Abraham, because on reflection after Sarah's death, he realized that he had been blessed to have her and that they had lived a truly good and upright life together. To live a life acknowledging God's blessings is to be truly thankful for who and what we have in life, to know that we have all that should really matter to us. May God bless us all to find and know such true contentment in our own lives, to treasure what truly matters over that which is merely a distraction.