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David Sedley
David Sedley
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Thanksgiving kindness (Parshat Vayishlach)

The woman who engineered the national holiday most feared the brother-against-brother violent potential for civil war, akin to the clash between Joseph and his brothers
Sarah Josepa Hale, 1831, by James Reid Lambdin. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Sarah Josepa Hale, 1831, by James Reid Lambdin. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

If anyone remembers Sarah Josepha Hale today, it is most likely because of her campaign which led to establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the United States. Or perhaps because she provided funds to ensure the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument, a memorial commemorating the 1775 battle of the Revolutionary War. Even if you don’t know her name, you likely know one of her poems, “Mary had a little lamb.”

But Hale was much more than that. To my mind, her activism for women’s rights and education was even more significant and did more to shape the United States of America.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

Hale was born on October 24, 1788, on a farm near Newport, New Hampshire. Her father, Captain Gordon Buell, was a Revolutionary War veteran. Her mother was named Martha Whittlesay Buell. Hale’s parents believed that boys and girls should both receive the same education, so they homeschooled Sarah while her brother Horatio attended Dartmouth College and shared his books with her.

Hale grew to become a smart, educated young woman, and wanted to teach others. However, women were not accepted as teachers in those days. So, at the age of 18, she opened her own private school.

During this time, an incident occurred that she would later use as the inspiration for a poem. According to Sherbrooke Rogers, one of Hale’s biographers:

Sarah began teaching young boys and girls in a small school not far from her home [in Newport, New Hampshire]… It was at this small school that the incident involving ‘Mary’s Lamb’ is reputed to have taken place. Sarah was surprised one morning to see one of her students, a girl named Mary, enter the classroom followed by her pet lamb. The visitor was far too distracting to be permitted to remain in the building and so Sarah ‘turned him out.’ The lamb stayed nearby till school was dismissed and then ran up to Mary looking for attention and protection. The other youngsters wanted to know why the lamb loved Mary so much and their teacher explained it was because Mary loved her pet.

A few years later, in 1811, her father, who suffered from ill health as a result of the Revolutionary War, gave up the farm to open a tavern, named The Rising Sun. That same year Sarah met a young lawyer named David Hale, and the two were married in 1813. He supported her quest for ongoing education, and she soon gave up her teaching position to establish a small literary club and begin her first forays into writing.

The couple had five children, David (1815), Horatio (1817), Frances (1819), Sarah (1820) and William (1822). (Horatio went on to become a prominent ethnologist and philologist, tracing the ancient migrations and languages of the Cherokee and other native Americans).

Hale’s husband David died suddenly of pneumonia in 1823, and Sarah wore black for the rest of her life as a sign of mourning. In the meanwhile, she was left to raise the children, the eldest of whom was only eight, and no clear means of financial support.

Fortunately, her late husband’s Masonic Lodge stepped in to support her. The Lodge set up Hale and her sister-in-law Hannah with a hat shop.

Its members also financed Hale’s first book, published that same year, entitled, “The Genius of Oblivion.” She ended the dedication with the following lines of gratitude:

Still your patronage shall be my boast. You kindly gave it, when ’twas needed most.

Soon, the income from the book allowed her to stop selling hats and focus full-time on teaching and writing. In 1827, Hale published her first novel, “Northwood: Life North and South.” This made her one of the first female published authors in the US, and one of the first to write about slavery.

Northwood: Life North and South, 1852 edition. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Following the success of “Northwood,” Hale was invited by the Reverend John Lauris Blake to move to Boston and edit his new periodical, “Ladies Magazine.” Blake himself was a bestselling author, best known for his book, “A General Biographical Dictionary, Comprising a Summary Account of the Most Distinguished Persons of All Ages, Nations and Professions, including more than one thousand articles of American Biography” (or “General Biographical Dictionary” for short).

Hale was faced with a dilemma – moving to Boston would mean she would have to leave most of her children behind in Newport, in the care of others. Eventually, she decided to make the move and take charge of the magazine. Her preferred title was “editress” and the journal became very successful. Ten years later, the magazine was bought by Louis A. Godey, and retitled “Godey’s Ladies’ Book.” Hale continued to run the new periodical for the next three decades.

The “Ladies’ Book” was extremely influential. According to Boston Women’s Heritage Trail:

Hale became hugely influential as an arbiter of good taste, manners, family life, and “domestic science.” While she was not an advocate for women’s equal political involvement, she was a strong supporter of female education (helping to establish Vassar College), and opportunities for women to achieve economic independence in a variety of occupations. She also published emerging American writers, giving them an audience of up to 150,000 readers. These writers included Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lydia Maria Child, and Catherine Sedgwick, Lucretia Mott, Emma Willard, and Susan B. Anthony; Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

In 1833, Hale established the Seaman’s Aid Society in Boston, to care for the wives of sailors, allowing them to earn a living and sell their work.

As a proud daughter of a revolutionary officer, Hale campaigned to preserve George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, in Virginia, and raised funds to complete the Bunker Hill Monument.

An 1863 letter from Hale to President Lincoln discussing Thanksgiving. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

She lobbied President Abraham Lincoln to establish a National Day of Thanksgiving that she believed would bring families together, unite the North and South, and avert the impending Civil War. On September 28, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, the 74-year-old Hale sent the president a letter requesting he unite the nation to celebrate Thanksgiving on the same day. Lincoln replied to Hale, and on October 3, 1863, Lincoln issued his first Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring:

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

Hale later (in 1852) revised “Northwood” to be more explicit about her views on the evils of slavery. She wrote of the suffering of the slaves, and how it also dehumanized their masters.

The great error of those who would sever the Union rather than see a slave within its borders, is, that they forget the master is their brother, as well as the servant; and that the spirit which seeks to do good to all and evil to none is the only true Christian philanthropy.

It is important to put her views in context. Despite her anti-slavery views, she was also fiercely proud of the United States, and the threat of civil war due to abolitionism was something she felt was an even greater danger to the nation.

In the revised Northwood includes journal entries of the protagonist’s father, that Hale imagined were the guidance of her own father’s generation.

Enclosed is the Journal of my father, that I found in his desk after his decease. It was directed to me, and evidently written at intervals, when any thought, bearing on the subject of my welfare, had moved his mind. You will find in it his opinions on the momentous subject of slavery.

According to Beverly Peterson in her article, “Mrs. Hale on Mrs. Stowe and Slavery”:

The gist of these entries is that, although the Bible and the Constitution sanction and regulate slavery, both the spirit of the Gospel and American principles of liberty indicate that slavery must come to an end.

Hale advocated for the slaves to be freed and sent to Liberia, Africa. (This view was shared by Harriet Beecher Stowe in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”). In 1853, Hale published a book entitled, “Liberia” which advocated colonization. And despite her anti-slavery views, she was a firm supporter of segregation. Although by today’s standards, neither of these views are acceptable, perhaps we can judge her by the morals of her time, and see them as progressive compared to many of her peers.

She was an even stronger advocate for women. Northwood ends with the following observation:

Mine is no partisan book, but intended to show selfishness her own ugly image, however it appears — north or south: and, also, to show how the good may overcome the evil. “Constitutions” and “compromises” are the appropriate work of men: women are conservators of moral power, which, eventually, as it is directed, preserved or destroys the work of the warrior, the statesman, and the patriot. Let us trust that the pen and not the sword will decide the controversy now going on in our land; and that any part women may take in the former mode will be promotive of peace, and not suggestive of discord.

She then combines her two other passions, Thanksgiving and ending slavery, advocating for one to work towards the other.

There are in the United States about forty thousand churches: on the Annual Thanksgiving Day, let a collection, for the purpose of educating and colonizing free people of color and emancipated slaves, be taken up in every church in our land.

Throughout her life, Hale remained a strong supporter of education for women and giving them greater economic opportunities. In addition to founding Vassar College, according to the “Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions” she supported the Female Medical School of Pennsylvania and served as secretary of the Ladies’ Medical Missionary Society. She advocated for women to be trained as doctors, “to deal with feminine needs at home and in the work of overseas missions.”

Hale passed away on April 30, 1879, aged 90, two years after Edison recited “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as the first recording on his new invention, the phonograph.

Throughout her life, she had constantly looked out for those less fortunate than she was. She advocated for women’s education and the end of slavery. But most of all, she tried, unsuccessfully, to avert the war of “brother against brother,” the American Civil War.

This week’s Torah reading, Vayeshev, is also about brother against brother. Joseph’s brothers felt he was a threat to the family unity, and sold him into slavery.

Rashi (on Genesis 45:27) cites Bereishit Rabba (94:3) that the last thing Jacob learned with Joseph before the brothers sold him was the law of the egla arufa, the heifer that is beheaded to atone for the death of someone who was murdered in between two cities (found in Deuteronomy Chapter 21:1-9).

If a corpse is found in your land… fallen in the field, and it is unknown who murdered him. The elders and judges shall go out and measure the cities around the corpse. And the closest city to the corpse, the elders of that city shall take a male heifer… and behead it in the valley… They shall respond and say, ‘Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see.’

Rashi (Deuteronomy 21:7) asks, “Would someone think the elders of the court were murderers? Rather, [it means] they did not see him and allow him to leave without food and an escort.”

The egla arufa is pageantry intended partially as a way to find the murderer. But more fundamentally, it is to demonstrate publicly that the leaders of the nearby cities cared about the weak and downtrodden and did everything they could to prevent the murder occurring.

Perhaps Jacob saw fit to learn this with Joseph because he had seen the same qualities in his younger son. He had seen that Joseph’s natural tendency was to care for those weaker than him – Joseph spoke up for his half-brothers, the sons of his father’s concubines, when Leah’s sons were mocking them (Rashi on Genesis37:2). Maybe Jacob wanted to encourage Joseph to always stand up for those less fortunate than him.

Joseph retained this message from his father. At every step of his journey, whether he was at the bottom of the heap or the top of the social ladder, he looked out for the less fortunate.

Joseph was eventually sold to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s minister of slaughterers, who was a powerful and great man. Yet before Joseph arrived, he had not been successful and not seen blessing. Joseph helped him and eventually, “God blessed in house of the Egyptian because of Joseph,” (Genesis 39:5). Yet, despite doing all he could for Potiphar, when the Egyptian’s wife falsely accused Joseph, he did not repay the kindness, but had the Israelite thrown into prison.

Joseph interpreting the Dreams of the Pharaoh’s Baker and Butler, Schiff 2. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

As a slave in Egypt, Joseph must have thought that things couldn’t get any worse for him. But being a slave in Egyptian jail was definitely even worse. But even there, Joseph showed empathy and kindness to the jailer. When Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker were thrown into jail, Joseph didn’t rejoice at their loss of stature. Rather, he felt their pain and suffering and in return, they entrusted him with their dreams. Three days later, the cupbearer was restored to his position at Pharoah’s right hand. But he too, did not repay Joseph’s kindness, but “did not remember him and forgot him,” (Genesis 40:23).

Nevertheless, Joseph continued to care for the downtrodden. Two years later, when he was miraculously freed from prison and became ruler over Egypt, he was concerned with each person. When the famine began, he insisted on greeting each person who came to buy grain, selling them food but also giving them hope.

Even when he had the power of life and death over his brothers, the same brothers who had so badly wronged him, he showed them kindness and favor (along with confusion to encourage them to learn the error of their ways).

Jacob only believed the report that his favorite son was alive when he saw “the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him,” (Genesis 45:27). He knew the ruler of Egypt was his son because of the personal kindness he showed, not only to the rich and wealthy, but also to those who were suffering. “The spirit of Jacob, their father, came back to life. And Israel said, ‘Great, my son Joseph is still alive,’” (Genesis 45:27-28).

Joseph never acted in the hope of personal gain. In fact, the rabbis criticize him for even hoping that Pharaoh’s cupbearer would speak up on his behalf. Despite his kindness to them, his half-brothers, Potiphar and the cupbearer all turned on Joseph and did nothing to help him or save him. But Joseph continued to care about everyone, the powerful and the weak, the masters and the slaves.

Contrast this (as our Torah reading does) with Joseph’s elder brother Judah. The brothers jointly threw Joseph into a pit. But then, Judah said, “What is the benefit in killing our brother… Let us sell him.” The Talmud (Sanhedrin 6b) applies to Judah the verse, “One who blesses the profiteer despises God,” (Psalms 10:3).

After the sale of Joseph, Judah leaves his brothers and starts both a business and a family. In the fullness of time, he marries his son Er to Tamar. Er dies, so Judah allows her to marry his second son, Onan. However, when Onan dies, Judah leaves Tamar a widow and does not allow her to marry his third son Shelah. When Tamar later becomes pregnant (from Judah, though he doesn’t know it), his first response was, “Bring her out and she shall be burned,” (Genesis 38:24).

Decades later, when Jacob asked his sons to go back to Egypt to get food for the family, Judah still had no empathy. He told his father, “If you are prepared to send our brother with us, we will go down and get food for you, but if you will not send him, we will not go,” (Genesis 43:4-5). Even though he was stating the facts, he lacked the human touch, he was unable to feel the pain of a father bereft of one son and afraid of losing another.

Perhaps this is connected to Judah’s role as the future king of Israel. Perhaps it is not a king’s task to show empathy, but to ensure that the right things are done for the good of the nation. But even so, without the empathy of Joseph, caring about everyone even though he is never repaid with kindness, the family and the nation will fall apart.

Kindness was the real message of Hale’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The last verse ends:

And you each gentle animal, In confidence may bind,
And make them follow at your call, If you are always kind.

Hale’s Thanksgiving dream was for everyone to unite in kindness, to care about the downtrodden and the unfortunate. And to work together to build a great nation.

We should all strive, like Joseph, to show empathy and kindness to all, regardless of how they treat us in return. And in this way, heal the rifts between us, end the uncivil war between families, and together rise to true greatness.

On November 30th, I will be giving a class at WebYeshiva entitled “Who was Chashmonai” about Chanukah. You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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