Posted tagged ‘Holidays’

‘Tis the Season to Celebrate Diversity and Freedom

December 23, 2016

This year we will be experiencing one of those rare occasions when Hanukkah and Christmas coincide exactly with our first night of Hanukkah also being our Christian neighbors’ Christmas Eve.  The last time that happened was in 1978 and the next time will be in 2027.  I am sure, to the chagrin of the owners of the Chinese restaurants, this Christmas Eve Jews will not be gathering in their establishments, eating Chinese food, but rather will be at home, lighting menorahs and eating latkes.  But have no fear, dear Chinese brethren, we will be back in force next Christmas Eve!

So often, this time of year has been one of great tension for us as Jews and between us and some of our Christian neighbors.  We even have a term for it.  We call it “The December Dilemma”.  While year after year there have been those in the Christian community who have complained bitterly about a “War on Christmas” – indeed, one of President-Elect Trump’s campaign promises was that if he became President, everyone in America would be saying “Merry Christmas” – still many of us Jews, along with many other minority faiths, have not seen it to be so much a “War on Christmas” but more a Christian war on non-Christian faiths.  And it has been ugly!

But it just may be that this perfect confluence of Hanukkah and Christmas can offer all of us – Jews, Christians, people of other faiths, and people of no faith – an opportunity to take a step back from the annual fray in order to reconsider what this season can and should mean, particularly in light of the teachings of our various faiths and specifically in light of the messages of the holidays we are just about to celebrate.

So often in the past, while immersed in the struggles of the December Dilemma, as there were those Christians who were railing against those stores and institutions who, out of a sensitivity to the religious diversity of our society, had chosen to express their good wishes in terms such as “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”, claiming that it was all a plot to destroy Christmas, and as there were those Jews who angrily protested against having public schools require non-Christian students to participate in the singing of sacred songs that proclaim the divinity of Jesus, it was so easy to focus on the differences between the two holidays; differences that make them appear as being diametrically opposed. After all, Christmas is all about celebrating the coming of Jesus who, for Christians, is God made manifest in human form, and Hanukkah is all about celebrating the victory of a band of Jews who were willing to risk their lives in fighting a war to protect their right to observe their own religion freely and without pressure or harassment to do otherwise.

Of course these struggles are still going on, but this year it is a little different.  It is a little different because come the evening of December 24th, the Christians and the Jews will go their separate ways, each of them to celebrate the powerful messages of their own holiday rather than to combat the other.

When you think about it, as we Jews gather in our homes, lighting our menorahs, and the Christians gather in their homes, enjoying the beauty of their lighted Christmas trees, the differences tend to fade and the similarities tend to shine through.  Indeed, we can begin to see that what are usually presented as differences can begin to appear as two sides of the same coin.

Perhaps there is more about the two holidays which – if approached properly and observed properly – compliment each other rather than contradict each other.  After all, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, who, according to Christianity, is supposed to be the Prince of Peace.  How often we hear identified with Christmas the profound wish of “Peace on earth, good will toward men” or to be more contemporary and gender neutral, “goodwill toward all.”  On the other hand, Hanukkah is about the importance of freedom of religion.  Not just freedom of religion for Jews but freedom of religion for all people.  In the end, both are about respecting the dignity and integrity of all people.  That’s how peace on earth is achieved.  We cannot hope to achieve goodwill toward all unless we come to respect that which makes each of us different and unique as well as that which makes us alike.  Of course, that includes the freedom of each of us to observe the religion of our choice.

I recently read an article in the Washington Post which spoke about this confluence of holidays, particularly in terms of their shared symbol of light.  For the Christians, their Christmas Tree is lit, they may be burning a Yule Log in their fireplace, and many of their houses are decorated with lights – some to the degree that they can be seen from space. For us Jews, our light – the light of the menorah – may be a bit more modest but still, according to Halachah, when we light it, it is not supposed to be in the midst of our house but rather at the window, shining out into the world at large.  Both holidays are calling upon us to become a source of light in a very dark work.  For both faiths, it is more than just about lighting candles or light bulbs that shine in the darkness of night.  It is about making of ourselves a source of light in a world that is shrouded in the darkness of poverty and suffering, inequity and conflict, disease and starvation.  We – Christians and Jews and people of all faiths – need to become the ones who bring light into the darkened lives of so many others, for whom their light has gone out or has never been kindled.

Perhaps this will be the year, when Christians and Jews are celebrating their festivals of light simultaneously, that we come to realize that we are all in this together.  Though we approach God in our very different ways, and we are celebrating very different holidays, perhaps we can come to recognize that all those things that differentiate our faiths and observance are meant to be directed inward, not outward; that they are all intended to be personal to us and not expected of others.  Yet there is so much that we do share, and that our various faiths demand of us, much of which is communicated to us through the very messages of these holidays.  It is in those values and in those tasks that we should be reaching out to each other in a righteous partnership of goodness and blessing.  Together, we can bring the light and drive back the darkness, but we have to choose to do so!

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MEMORIAL DAY: Dare We Forget the Sacrifices?

May 24, 2014

It is Memorial Day weekend and so many of us are looking forward to the holiday; a 3-day weekend for most with plenty of sunshine (hopefully), as we relax with family and friends, basking in the Spring weather. Perhaps we will have or attend a barbeque. Perhaps a graduation party. Perhaps we may hit the road for a mini-vacation. Perhaps we will take advantage of all the holiday sales. What a wonderful holiday Memorial Day is for us!
While it is a wonderful break, especially after such a long, hard winter, it seems that in the midst of all our relaxing and partying, we may have forgotten something. We may have forgotten the reason for the holiday; what the holiday is supposed to be about. It’s not barbeque day. It’s not bask in the sunshine day. Its not take a mini vacation day. It’s not shop the sales day. It is MEMORIAL Day. It is a time when our thoughts should be turning to some very, very special people; people who were dedicated, brave and self-sacrificing. Indeed, these people made the ultimate sacrifice for us. They gave up their very lives so that we can continue to live in freedom.
On the Yahrzeit board in my synagogue’s sanctuary, in the bottom right-hand corner, there are eight plaques with stars next to their names. The star is there to acknowledge that each of these individuals was killed while in service to our country. One of them died in the First World War and seven in the Second World War. On this Memorial Day Shabbat, I will be including their names in the list of those others being remembered as we recite the Kaddish.
I am assuming – rightfully or wrongly – that this is a short list of those members of Temple Emanuel who over the years made that ultimate sacrifice. It is definitely a short list of those who served our country in time of war. With our congregation having been founded in 1861, I suspect that there were members of our congregation who fought in the Civil War, some of whom may have been in killed on the battlefield. Perhaps some of our number fought and maybe fell in the Spanish American War. Perhaps also in the Korean and Viet Nam wars. The members of our community have always been willing to serve, and if necessary, die for our country.
When we consider the history of our people, with all its pain and suffering, with all the prejudice, persecution, and bloodshed, the freedoms this nation has offered to us most certainly should be cherished. When practically no other nation on earth would welcome us, nevertheless give us full and equal rights and protections under the law, America stood out to us as a beacon of hope, security, and dignity. For our people, America was the exception to the rule, and continues to be the exception of the rule. Since before the birth of this nation as a nation, Jews have not been considered aliens or hardly tolerated guest but rather we have been welcomed as full partners in the American experiment.
With the Holocaust and all its horrors now being almost 70 years in the past, and the generation who lived through those dreadful years growing fewer and fewer with the passage of time, it is all too easy for us Jews who were born in the safety and security, and especially the full inclusion, of American life to take our freedoms – our acceptance – for granted for we have personally known no other existence. We have never been thrown into a ghetto or worse. We have never been denied our rights to vote or get an education or live in a particular neighborhood or work in a particular profession or for a particular employer. We have never felt the sting of living in a society permeated by the hatred of us; a hatred sponsored by the state itself. Yet these are precisely the things about America that we should not take for granted but rather cling to and value to the highest degree. Our gratitude should ever continue to be boundless; as boundless as the wonderful opportunities we so readily enjoy in this land.
All this brings us back to what Memorial Day should mean for us as Americans, and particularly as Jews. As easy as our lives are today, we should not deceive ourselves into believing that the freedoms we take so much for granted were easily gained or easily maintained. For they were not. In every generation from the birth of this country to this present day, there have been those who sought to destroy all that we have; those who sought to destroy the promise of America. In every generation, Americans have had to take up arms in order to protect the American way of life. They have had to take up arms to protect those very freedoms which we enjoy today and which have meant so much to us as Jews living in this land of freedom. Along the way, many of them have sacrificed their lives in that cause. They fought and their died so that we could gather in our synagogues on Shabbat and holidays, worshiping God in our own way – in the Jewish way – and free to do so without fear or dire repercussions. They fought and died for the freedom of American Jews and American Catholics and American Protestants and American Muslims and American Unitarians and Hindus and Buddhist and Sikhs. They fought and died for the freedom of the Whites and the Blacks and the Hispanics and the Asians of our land. They fought and died for the freedom of all Americans, regardless of race or creed or gender or age or sexual orientation. That freedom, which we too often take for granted, was more valuable to these military martyrs than was their lives. That we are who we are today is in no small way owing to their ultimate sacrifices. How could we ever adequately express what should be our gratitude?
Perhaps we can start by taking the time before we leave this building tonight to go over and look at those eight Yahrzeit plaques and consider all that they stand for. Perhaps as we look at those plaques we can say in our hearts, or maybe even out loud, “Thank you.” In any event, in the midst of all our leisure and pleasure on this holiday weekend let us try to set aside some time to reflect upon the great debt that we owe to America’s warriors and especially to those who have fallen in the line of duty. But if we truly want to render proper honor to the memories of these brave people, then we need to retrain ourselves in such a way that we never again take for granted that for which they so willingly sacrificed their lives.

One Jew Reflecting Upon Christmas

December 29, 2013

Well, we made it through another one!  Christmas has come and gone – except for the post-Christmas sales – and Jews can breathe a sigh of relief as once again we can consider ourselves part of the mainstream of American life.

For quite some time I have had a love-hate relationship with Christmas.  Believe it or not, there is so much that I, as a Jew and as a rabbi do love about the holiday.

My earliest recollections of Christmas prominently include my father taking my sister and me for a Christmas eve drive around our neighborhood so as to enjoy the beauty of the lights decorating the homes of our Christian neighbors.  I still enjoy going on those light tours, which of course today include visiting some of those over the top houses with their complex musical light shows.  I have to admit that as garish and as energy extravagant as those light shows are, they are fun to watch; that is as long as such houses are not on my street, tying up traffic, and especially not across the street from me, flashing its performances into my windows every half hour on the half hour.  But even as I revel in the beauty of the lights – and they are so beautiful – I cannot help but ponder that it is near unto impossible for me to conceive of any Jew who would actually choose to get out their ladder in the late November or early December cold in order to climb up on their roof to string lights, only to climb up there again on a frigid January day in order to take them down.  Most Jews would label that meshugah!  We call that cultural diversity.  Perhaps that is why when you come upon the occasional Jewish home whose residents have felt a need to decorate their house with blue and white lights for Hanukkah, those  displays are always pretty lame.  Yet when all is said and done, I am profoundly grateful to my Christian neighbors for bringing such beauty and light to the dark and gloomy nights of early winter!

While my love of the lights were born of childhood experiences and have remained with me ever since, they are not the only aspects of Christmas that I have come to appreciate.  Growing older and more thoughtful, my love of Christmas has extended to so many of its messages.  While “peace on earth, good will to men (all)” has become so much a cliche, I still find it to be a powerful expression of this holiday’s aspiration that the spirit of pure love and human unity take hold in the hearts of all God’s children.  To me, this is Christian teaching at its finest; in its most ideal state.  While, as a Jew, I do not personally believe that Jesus was anything other than an historical figure, I do believe, based upon my studies of the Gospels, that these are the values which he preached and by which he lived.  They are the aspect of Jesus that all people – Christian and non-Christian alike – can embrace and aspire to live up to.  From a Jewish perspective, it is precisely these types of teachings which confirm Christianity as a legitimate religious expression; as one of the truly valid spiritual paths to God.  As a Jew, my path to God is through Torah.  For Christians, their path is through Jesus.  Whichever path we choose, it is meant to lead us to the same God.  It is meant to lead us to a God who loves all humanity and who expects us, people of our respective faiths, to share that love.

In fact, that is why I love Christmas movies.  Not all Christmas movies, but several of them; the ones that I consider to be the really good ones because they embody such uplifting and hopeful messages.  As a rabbi, I freely admit that for me Christmas is not Christmas unless I watch at least one such movie.  Top on my list is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  George Bailey is the personification of the message of Christmas.  George Bailey is the personification of the message of all ethically based faiths.  Christian, Jew, Muslim, it matters not where we pray or in which language we pray.  In the end, our various faiths call upon us to live our lives as George Bailey lived his, caring for his neighbors, striving to do his part to help make their lives at least a little better.  The same can be said for the number two movie on my list – any version of Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL, though from a purely entertainment perspective I do prefer both the Alistair Sims and the Bill Murray versions.  The question we all must confront is “How much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge from the beginning of tale and how much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge of its conclusion?  In this day of growing corporate greed, where the income gap between executives and employees grows exponentially greater, where for the sake of profit companies outsource their jobs to nations that fail to provide legal protections for the rights of their labor force, the evolving character of Ebenezer Scrooge has so much to teach us.  Recently, I encountered a quote from Walter Bruggerman, the imagery of which really touched me.  He spoke of “eating off our hungry brother’s and sister’s table.”  How guilty are we of such an act; of filling our stomachs at the expense of those in need; of taking from them in order to increase our own luxury?  These are the types of ethical challenges which Christmas places before us as it calls upon each and every one of us – Christian and non-Christian alike – to make of ourselves better human beings; to transform ourselves from being the Ebenezer Scrooge who appears at the beginning of the tale to the one who appears at its end.

While I am deeply moved by the universal nature of the ethics of Christmas, I am also moved by its spirituality.  Even though, as a Jew I do not accept in any way, manner, shape, or form a belief in the divinity of Jesus, still I can have a profound appreciation for the spiritual forces born of those beliefs which so inspire my Christian brothers and sisters and draw them closer to God.  True faith is a beautiful thing, even if it is not your own faith, as long as that faith carries one to acts of righteousness, justice, and love.  Perhaps being a person of faith myself helps to make me more attuned to and appreciative of the spiritual power of other faiths.  The function of a true faith is to help us actualize God’s caring presence in our lives.  For those of us who actively seek that presence through the practices and values of our own faith traditions, it may be easier for us to recognize and acknowledge when the practices and values of other faith traditions actualize the Divine presence on the lives of those who adhere to those traditions.  Such is the case when I witness those who truly observe Christmas; the real Christmas – the one observed in the church and the home more than in the shopping mall and the big box stores.

And how can I not help but love the great value Christmas places on family?  It is a time when the bonds of familial love are so strong that family members are magnetically drawn together, even across the miles, and sometimes across the planet, to share their Christmas experience; to reaffirm the power of family love in their lives.  “I’ll be home for Christmas” so says the song.  Homecoming is as much a part of Christmas as is the Christmas tree – even more so.

And yes, one of the things I love about Christmas is egg nog, and it matters not whether it be the alcoholic or non-alcoholic version.  It is the consummate seasonal drink, only to be surpassed, according to my taste buds, by that Arabic winter drink, sahleb.  Once again, cultural diversity!

These are just some of the aspects of Christmas which I as a Jew and a rabbi truly love and perhaps even envy, though each and every one of them are also to be found in my own faith, that is if you would accept the substitution of egg nog for matzah ball soup.

But as I stated earlier, my relationship with Christmas is one of both love and hate.  Sadly, there are other aspects of Christmas – particularly Christmas in America – which I freely admit evoke in me anger and bitterness.  For there are those who have chosen to set aside the universalistic Christmas message of love and respect for all of God’s children and have replaced it with a sort of perverse imperialistic parochialism.  For whatever reasons, these people have come to believe that Christmas will be somehow diminished unless all people, Christian or not, are required to engage in its observance.  When non-Christians like myself tell them, “Go, enjoy your beautiful holiday but leave me and my children out of it,” we become the enemy; we become the embodiment of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  I for one don’t take kindly to that.

I have always tried to be a live and let live type of guy.  You lead your life and I will lead mine and we should respect each other for our uniqueness and individuality.  That is why it has so deeply offended me when others have tried to impose their observance of Christmas, especially the religious aspects of Christmas, upon everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.  As a Jew, I have always wanted my Christian neighbors to enjoy the fullness of their Christmas holiday, but what I have never wanted is for my neighbors to turn around and expect me, or my children, or any non-Christian adult or child, to join them in their Christmas observance.  I am quite happy witnessing Christmas from the outside, looking in, appreciating all that is beautiful and wonderful about it.  I don’t need to be on the inside, I don’t want to be on the inside, and I resent any attempt to force me or my kind to be on the inside.  I don’t mind listening to your Christmas songs as they are broadcasted wherever I go in the month of December, and often I enjoy their melodies even if I cannot accept the message of their lyrics.  But do not expect me to sing them.  Do not expect any non-Christian to sing them, especially non-Christian children.  These songs speak of a faith that we do not nor cannot accept.  When public school music teachers force such expressions from the lips of our children, what they are doing is nothing less than spiritual child abuse.  Ironically, it also diminishes the Christian beliefs which those songs are intended to lift up.  For what does it say of the purity of Christianity when the tenets of its beliefs are forcibly falsely uttered by those who reject those very beliefs?

A painful vignette:  When my youngest daughter was in 7th grade, my wife and I, being loving and dutiful parents, attended her school’s winter music concert.  The first group to sing was the 6th grade chorus.  Standing among them was a little Muslim girl, dressed in traditional Muslim garb.  When the songs they sang were essentially Christian in nature, she stood there still and silent, standing out like a sore thumb.  It was heartbreaking yet uplifting to witness this child resist the enormous social pressure as she refused to publicly denounce her faith by proclaiming another.  The next year, when we attended the concert, I was particularly interested in hearing the 7th grade chorus sing, being curious to see whether or not that Muslim child would be among them, and if so, what she would do.  As that chorus took to the stage, it soon became clear that the Muslim girl was not not to be seen.  What a tragedy!  Why should a child who happens to be a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist or a Hindu or an atheist in America – a nation which at least theoretically holds on to the principle of separation of church and state – be forced to choose between participating in a public school music program and remaining true to the tenets of his or her faith?

While this issue of celebrating Christmas, a religious holiday, in what are supposed to be religiously neutral public schools has been a source of contention for many years, going back to my own childhood, over the last few years this struggle has taken on a new and even more invasive and sinister dimension.  I speak of the so-called “War on Christmas.”  Those crusaders who claim themselves to be the defenders of the sanctity of Christmas, led by such zealots as Bill O’Reilly and so many of his colleagues at Fox News, have vigorously invested themselves in the cause of claiming black is white and fiction is fact.  In their own insidious way, they have attempted to turn the tables on us non-Christians who have worked so hard to convince our Christian neighbors that our participation is neither essential nor desirable for their own celebration of their sacred Christmas holiday.  All that we have asked is that our fellow Americans acknowledge and respect the wondrous religious diversity of our land.  Yet these Christmas crusaders have decided to redefine such respect as being an affront to Christianity and a direct assault on Christmas itself.  For them, there is no middle ground.  To say “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is an offense equal to spitting in the face of Jesus.  They have taken this struggle over Christmas beyond the public schools and out into the shopping malls and the grocery stores and onto the media – radio, TV, and print.  This year, they have even made it into a racial issue, claiming Christmas and Jesus to be the primary possession of the white Christian race.  Emphatically they have insisted that Santa is white (even though the original Santa Claus came from Turkey) and that Jesus was white (even though historically he was a Middle Eastern Jew) and that any other perspective is nothing short of a vicious lie.  Indeed, they have given a completely new meaning to the phrase “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” a song which, by the way was written by the Jew, Irving Berlin.

In all of this, look at what obviously has been lost.  The true meaning of Christmas.  The essential teachings of Jesus, whose birth Christians are supposed to be celebrating.  They have become Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL in reverse.  Instead of the spirit of Christmas transforming a mean spirited, narrow minded bigoted Ebenezer Scrooge into a lover and care giver for all humanity, they have been working to transform the loving humanistic spirit of Christmas into a festival of partisanship and xenophobia.  What they claim to be our War on Christmas is in fact their War on Non-Christians; their war on those children of God who have chosen not to share their religious beliefs.  As one such non-Christian, I cannot help but be angry and resentful.

The saddest part of all is that there is a War on Christmas, but definitely not as the Bill O’Reillys of the world describe it.  The real War on Christmas is the war to secularize it; to diminish if not strip away entirely its fundamental religious nature.  It is a war which seeks to transform a sacred season into a shopping season and the worship of God into the worship of materialism.  Box stores instead of churches become the centers of holy gatherings.  Baby Jesus and the person he would grow to become is being supplanted by that heavy set man in the red suit who fills the houses with games and toys for children of all ages.  Peace on earth, good will to all is utterly forgotten in the crush of the early morning stampedes on Black Friday.  Christmas as a family day – not so much so any more.  It used to be that Christmas day for Jews meant Chinese food and a movie.  The Chinese restaurants were the only eateries open and the movie theaters were also open but relatively empty as our Christian neighbors gathered with their families around their trees and their festive dinner tables.  At a time of year when it is typical for Jews to feel left out, having the movie theaters mostly to ourselves did serve as somewhat of a healing balm.  In fact, when I was a rabbi in Lincoln, Nebraska – in the days before multiplexes – I had one congregant family who prided themselves on their ability to travel from theater to theater to theater, catching several films on any given Christmas day.  But over the past few years, the theaters have not been so empty.  This year, our local multiplex was literally packed.  It saddened me, not so much because we had to fight the crowd, but more so because of what it represented about the changing face of Christmas in America, as the movie theater replaced the home as the central gather place for Christians on Christmas day; as spending Christmas day with the latest Hollywood releases replaced spending it at home, around the tree, around the fire, around the dinner table, with family and friends.  This is the true War on Christmas and it has nothing whatsoever to do with saying “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”  Rather it has to do with materialism, commercialism, and secularization.  Sadder still that it is so obvious to a Jew like myself, someone on the outside looking in, while for so many others, for whom Christmas is their holiday, they don’t even see it.

I am a Jew and I love my faith and I love my people.  My religion has given me so much joy, pleasure, and inspiration. Its observances – daily, Shabbat, holidays – have so greatly enriched my life.  My gratitude knows no end.  I wish that all people could receive such gifts and that they should receive them from the values, teachings, and practices of the faith of their choosing, whatever that faith may be.  I know that all true faiths freely offer such gifts to their adherents.  For my Christian neighbors, Christmas is most certainly one such gift; true Christmas, Christmas as it was intended to be celebrated.  As a Jew, I marvel at its wonder and its beauty and all that is good about it.  I see it for all it is and all it can be yet I am puzzled why, for so many Christians, that does not seem to be enough.  Why is it not enough for them to bask in their gracious holiday celebration?  Why do they somehow feel incomplete as Christians if they fail to drag others who do not share their beliefs into their observances?

As the outsider looking in, I freely admit that I love Christmas for all it was intended to be yet hate the aggressive and mean spirited holiday into which some have re-framed it.

Traveling the Road to Sinai

April 1, 2013

Our Pesach Seder, or S’darim, are behind us.  In just a few days, Pesach itself will be concluded as we gather for Yizkor.  Now, as our tradition tells us, we are in the period of the counting of the Omer.

But what is counting the Omer?  In the book of LEVITICUS, our people were instructed that on the second day of Pesach they were to bring to the Temple a sheaf of barley as an offering.  The Hebrew word for “sheaf” is “Omer.”  In that same passage it states that starting on the second day of Pesach, it is a mitz­vah to daily count the Omer; counting the 50 days from Pesach to Shavuot.  Since Shavuot is the festival of the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai – and as our tradition expanded upon that, the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai – the counting of the Omer is literally marking the days between the time we were liberated from our slavery in Egypt to the time God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.  In counting the Omer, we are in our own way participating in the journey across the wilderness from Egypt to Sinai; from slavery to Torah.

From the first Pesach and Shavuot to this very day, by counting the Omer, we Jews make that very same jour­ney.  While Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, and all of their followers physically traveled the 50 day journey from Egypt to Sinai, we, on the other hand, spiritually travel it.

But how does one spiritually travel from Egypt to Sinai?  To answer that question, we have to ask ourselves, “What does Egypt spiritually represent?” and “What does Sinai spiritually represent?”  For in finding the spiritual meanings of Egypt and Sinai, we discover the true path of the spiritual journey which each of us, as modern Jews, must take.

What is the meaning of Egypt?  We hear it stated over and over throughout our Pesach Seder.  Egypt is slavery, and therefore the journey from Egypt is nothing less than freedom.

What is the meaning of Sinai?  For Jews throughout the ages, Sinai has always stood for Torah.  So what is Torah?  Torah is our guide book to becoming a good Jew and a decent human being.  It tells us what we need to do in order to achieve those goals.  In other words, it lays out for us our responsibilities as Jews.

For us, the counting of the Omer should not only remind us of that journey our ancestors took some 3,500 years ago, from Egypt to Sinai, but also the journey that each of us as modern Jews need to take; the journey from freedom to responsibility.  For freedom is a wonderful thing, a blessing, and we American Jews enjoy a great deal of it, but freedom without responsibility is nothing other than license, and that is not a good thing.  It most certainly is not a blessing.

As Americans we are well aware of the fact that freedom has a price; that sometimes it even requires a sacrifice.  We know that freedom does not mean “I’ll do whatever I damn well please and the heck with you!”  While freedom is a gift, it is not the gift of absolute selfishness.  It is the gift of living in a community of people equally free, and doing whatever is necessary to protect the freedom of others as well as our own, and to protect the integrity of the community and all that it stands for.  In order to do so, we have to exercise our freedom to choose to do the right thing and not just the selfish thing.  We have to choose to be at one with others rather than only looking out for ourselves, at times placing above ourselves the values and principles that keep freedom alive and vibrant.  Hillel put it so well 2,000 years ago when he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, then what am I?”  With freedom comes responsibility.

For us as Jews, our Omer counting journey places its focus on some very particular freedoms and some very particular responsibilities; the freedoms and responsibilities of what it means to be a Jew today.

There is something sadly telling in the fact that most modern Jews celebrate Pesach – celebrate freedom – but far fewer celebrate Shavuot – celebrate responsibility – and even fewer still count the Omer – give serious consideration to what it means to make the journey from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility.  Yes, we know that we are free to be Jews, but too many of us interpret that as merely meaning that we don’t have to convert to another faith to be considered equals in the land we live.  Too many of us think that being free to be Jews means being free to choose to do nothing Jewishly with our lives, and if not nothing, then to choose to keep our Jewish activities at a bare minimum – attend a Pesach Seder of sorts which often is significantly abridged; perhaps go to a High Holy Day service or two; light some candles and give gifts on Hanukkah; or even take on the expense of joining a synagogue but rarely attend or participate; while never publicly denying being a Jew, at the same time never really publicly proclaiming it either.

But does the freedom to be a Jew really include the freedom from living Jewishly?  Many years ago, when I was a rabbinic student intern in a wonderful congregation in Scarsdale, New York, one of my responsibilities was to teach the Confirmation class.  Our Confirmation program centered upon a series of guest speakers, each addressing a topic of significance.  In one section of the course, over three weeks we explored the differences between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism.  While all three speakers were excellent, the one that really stands out in my memory is the Orthodox rabbi.  Why?  Because of an exercise he conducted with my students.  He simply asked them, “What does it mean to be a Reform Jew?”  One student replied, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to keep kashrut.”  Another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means you don’t have to wear a yarmulka at services.”  Yet another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to fast on Yom Kippur.”  Still another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to go to services on Saturday, or even on Friday if you don’t want to.”  And so the students went on, that is until he stopped them.  Then this Orthodox rabbi turned to them and said, “Don’t tell me about what you don’t do as Reform Jews.  Tell me about what you do.”  The students were stumped.  For them, being a Reform Jew was all about not having to do this and not having to do that.  It was all about their freedom and little or nothing about their responsibilities.  That Orthodox rabbi challenged those students to tell him, “As a Reform Jew, I choose to do this or I choose to do that” and they were hard pressed to respond.  For them, Reform Judaism meant a lot of free­dom but little, if any, responsibility.

Those Confirmation students are far from alone when it comes to Jews today, nor are their responses just restricted to Reform Jews.  Just count the empty seats in any synagogue on Shabbat.  Just count the empty chairs in any Jewish adult education class.  Just compare the number of those who attend syna­gogue and Jewish community events to those who belong to the synagogue and to the community.  Just examine how most Jewish institutions languish for need of volunteers and especially for leaders.  Even Tikkun Olam activities which, at least in our synagogue, are the most popular, pale in support when compared to our population.  Today so many Jews are just too busy to be Jewish.

This is precisely why the counting of the Omer journey is so vitally important for our people.  We need to come to grips with the fact that being Jewish does not end with our freedom to be Jewish.  Our journey is not just a Pesach journey.  It is not just about our liberation from Egypt.  It is also a Shavuot journey.  It is a journey toward Torah; toward the taking on of Jewish responsibilities.  It is about imbuing our Jewish freedom with Jewish life and Jewish meaning.  It is about bringing our Judaism to life in our lives and in the lives of our families and our community.  We need to journey from Pesach to Shavuot.  We need to journey from Egypt to Sinai.  We need to journey from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility.  The 50 days of the Omer stretch before us, offering us the opportunity to explore, to ponder, and ultimately to decide how each of us, making the decisions that work best for us, can travel that path from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility; from being free to live as Jews to living meaningful Jewish lives.

The Rabbi Sat on Santa’s Lap

December 22, 2012

Well, it is that time of year again; that time when we Jews, more than any other time of the year, can feel like outsiders in our own society – like children, faces pressed against the window glass of a toy store, gazing in at all the wonder but unable to enter ourselves.
Christmas is seen as such an “American” holiday that there are times when it can even lead us, who do not celebrate Christmas, to questioning the authenticity of our own American identity.  Are we less American because we do not take on the trappings of Christmas; the trees, the lights, and the presents?
There was a time, and it was not that long ago, when American Jews were far more insecure about their place in American society than we are now.  So much so that many felt the need to take on those Christmas trapping not only so that we could feel more comfortable at this time of year, but also so that we could feel that we were being more accepted by our non-Jewish neighbors.  I remember that time very well, for while it started almost as soon as we arrived on these shores, it included the time of my childhood; the ‘50’s & the early ‘60’s.
I grew up in New York City, which, especially in those years, was heavily Jewish in population.  In my public school, over 90% of the students and the faculty were Jews.  On Jewish holidays, hardly anyone was in school, while on Christian holidays, when the school was open, it was business as usual.  Indeed we Jewish students used to resent the fact that when we were off for our holidays, our Christian classmates basically spent their school time playing instead of studying, while, when we are in school during their holidays, we worked.  Yet in spite of the numbers being so heavily in favor of the Jews, we had our Christmas programs, in which primarily Jewish teachers taught primarily Jewish students, how to sing and play Christmas songs – including some very religious Christmas songs – in order to perform them for an audience which was primarily made up of Jewish parents.  No one challenged all this on the grounds of Separation of Church and State because the underlying assumption was that Christmas is an American holiday which all Americans are expected to celebrate.
That assumption did not end at the doors of the school building.  It found its way into many Jewish homes as well.  Mine was one of them.
Yes, your rabbi grew up with Christmas.  In our home we had a tree and some Christmas decorations.  I remember most vividly that in our living room window we placed an electrically powered moving model of Santa in his sleigh being pulled by his reindeer, as the reindeer and the sleigh rocked back and forth.  And yes, on Christmas morning, there were presents awaiting my sister and me under the tree.  As far as lights on the house were concerned, there were not many – just a string of blue Christmas lights framing our front door.  After all, you have to draw a line somewhere.  I think it is a cultural thing, for even Jews who seek to celebrate Christmas find it a bissel meshugah to climb around the outside of your house, from roof to lawn, in the winter’s cold, in order to string festive lights.  That is why, as Jews, for centuries, in our celebration of Hanukkah we only have placed the menorah in the window and left it as that.  And yes, your rabbi did visit with Santa Claus, in Gimbels department store, sat on his lap, and rattled off his Christmas wish list – and the Cantor has saved the photographic evidence to prove it!
In our family, all this came to a sudden end when my sister started attending religious school.  For some strange reason, my parents joined an Orthodox synagogue.  While my father would not set foot in the place until my sister’s pseudo-Bat Mitzvah, my mother got involved in non-worship activities.  In any event, one day my sister announced that since we are Jews we should not be celebrating Christmas, so no more trees, no more lights, no more Santa, and unfortunately, no more gifts.  Her protest must have stung my parents’ conscience, for they readily agreed.  The only dissenting voice was mine.  What do you mean “No more tree?  I like Christmas!  Why are you taking it away?”  So my father explained to me about our being Jewish and how Jews don’t celebrate Christmas, and in the end we struck a compromise – reluctantly on my part.  That compromise was that from then on, on Christmas eve we would all pile in the car and drive around the neighbor, looking at the beautiful Christmas lights on the homes of our Christian neighbors.
I did not know it at the time, but that compromise would lay the foundations for my evolving Jewish attitude about Christmas.  Once I started attending religious school – by that time my family had joined a Reform congregation – and my own sense of Jewish identity was strengthening, I quickly made peace with the fact that Christmas was not my holiday any more than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur were the holidays of my Roman Catholic next door neighbor and childhood companion, Neal DeLuca.  But that did not mean that I could not enjoy Christmas.  Every year, I looked forward to the family Christmas lights tour .  In fact, as my own children were growing up, the Cantor and I continued that tradition with them.
But more than the lights, I enjoyed and continue to enjoy the spirit – the true spirit – of Christmas.  Not the commercialism, and especially not the insanity of Black Friday, but rather that spirit of “Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men (and Women).”  I enjoy the fact that during this season people tend to be more sensitive to and caring of others.  I particularly love Christmas movies – not all of them, but ones that I consider to be good ones.  I consider them good because of their universal messages which somehow or other all boil down to “we can be better people.”  Along those lines, my favorite is Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in all of its varied manifestations and modernizations.  I even have the book on my Kindle.  And then there is “It’s A Wonderful Life” with its message that each and every one of us can and do make a difference, so let us make a difference for the better.  I even love Tim Allen’s “Santa Clause” movies for they teach us that it is not so much “seeing is believing” as it is “believing is seeing.”  So much of how we view the world around us is shaped by what we believe the world to be.  If we believe that people are selfish and cruel at heart, we will see our world as being filled with selfishness and cruelty.  But if we believe people are truly good at heart, then we will see a world filled with acts of loving kindness.  As Jews – as outsiders looking in – Christmas still offers us much that is meaningful, uplifting, and downright encouraging about the human condition, or at least the human potential.
We do not have to buy into the particular theology of Christmas in order to enjoy and benefit from these aspects of the holiday.  However it is important for us to recognize, and respect, the fact that so much which is positive about Christmas is born of Christian theology.  That we, as Jews, can find it so uplifting is but a testimony to the fact those particular Christian teachings which give birth to so many of Christmas’ positive elements are founded in values which Judaism and Christianity happen to share.  Joy and beauty, peace and good will, caring for others and a human potential to be better are as much Jewish virtues as they are Christian.  As we Jews watch Christians celebrate these virtues, it is only fit and proper that our observations should fill us with joy, for seeing our shared virtues celebrated in a religious framework other than our own should fill us with hope for the future; a hope that since we are not alone in the struggle to make these real, that together, hand-in-hand, Jews and Christians, all faiths who share these ideals, will eventually bring about that momentous day which we Jews call the Messianic Age.
And by the way, one more thing about Christmas that I enjoy is that on Christmas Day I run into so many of my fellow Jews in the Chinese restaurants and the movie theaters.

A National Holiday for Prayer

April 25, 2012

Just when you think that you are familiar with all of our national holidays, you find out about one that you never heard of before.  So it probably is for many of you when it comes to the National Day of Prayer.  That’s right – the United States of America actually has an official national holiday dedicated to prayer!  If falls on the first Thursday of May.

The history of this holiday is interesting.  It was officially designated by Congress as a national holiday in 1952, as a day when the American people are asked “to turn to God in prayer and meditation.”  Each year, the President signs a proclamation in which he reaffirms the purpose of this holiday.  However, its historical roots sink far deeper into the American tradition.  The first proclamation calling for a National Day of Prayer was issued by the Continental Congress, in which it declared July 20, 1775 to be “a day of publick humiliation, fasting, and prayer.”  Subsequent declarations for individual National Days of Prayer were issued by Presidents George Washington, John Adams, and Abraham Lincoln.  But it was not until 1952 that it became an annual event.

In my community of the Quad Cities, which straddles the Mississippi River uniting Iowa and Illinois, for several years now, there has been a group which has sponsored an annual National Day of Prayer breakfast.  Not surprisingly, the organizers of this breakfast are exclusively Christian.  Therefore, the tone of this event also has been exclusively Christian.  A little over four years ago, Rev. Ron Quay, the Executive Director of Churches United of the Quad Cities Area, approached these organizers and proposed that they broaden the religious base of their event by inviting non-Christian faith groups to participate in it as well.  After some deliberation, their response to Rev. Quay’s request was that while non-Christians are always welcome to attend, the nature of their event will continue to remain exclusively Christian.

Upon receiving that response, Rev. Quay approached Rev. Roger Butts (then minister of the Unitarian Church) and me to consider joining with him in organizing an interfaith National Day of Prayer event.  And so we did.  For the last three years, Temple Emanuel has hosted an Interfaith National Day of Prayer luncheon which was primarily targeted toward community clergy.  We chose to do this as a luncheon because, while we wished to provide an interfaith alternative to the exclusively Christian event, we were not interested in competing with it.

This year, the sponsorship for this event has been taken up by our newly formed Interfaith Clergy Caucus.  Yet once again, Temple Emanuel will be the host institution.  However, this year we are instituting a significant change. Instead of restricting the event to clergy, we are opening it up to the general public.

In the beginning, why did Rev. Quay, Rev. Butts, and I feel that organizing such an event was so important?  Why have the members of the Interfaith Clergy Caucus decided that it was important to sponsor such an event?  It is because we believe that the National Day of Prayer does not belong to any one faith group exclusively.  It belongs to all people of faith who enjoy the blessings of living in this American democracy.  Indeed, it is a time for us of many faiths to come together to thank God or the Divine Powers, whatever our beliefs, in our many ways for the blessing we share in this land.  It is a time to celebrate the wonder and the beauty of the religious diversity of America.  That is what it was ALWAYS intended to be.  In fact both John Adams and Abraham Lincoln said as much in their particular proclamations for the day.  To quote Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation:

“Now, therefore, in compliance with the request, and fully concurring in the views of the Senate, I do, by this proclamation, designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer.  And I do hereby request all the People to abstain, on that day, from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.”

All the people… at their several places of worship.”  This day was never meant to be the exclusive domain of one faith or another but is the possession of all people of all faiths.

While Americans today do not face as great a crisis as we did in 1863, still there is ample call for praying for our country; praying for justice, praying for equality, praying for peace, praying for prosperity.  Let us pray that no America need ever go homeless or hungry or jobless.  Let us pray that no American ever need suffer from discrimination, hatred and intolerance.  Let us pray that no American ever be denied health care or education.  Let us pray that the day will soon arrive when no longer will we need to sacrifice the lives of our sons and our daughters on the battlefields of this planet.

On May 3, 2012, let us as a nation composed of many people of varied faiths once again raise our voices in prayer as we rededicate ourselves to building a better tomorrow for all.

The Power of Pesach

March 28, 2012

Over 30 years ago, I read an article which reported a statistical study of Jewish observances.  The big news in that article was that while many Jews assumed that the most observed Jewish holiday of the year is Yom Kippur, the statistics indicated that by a wide margin it is not Yom Kippur but rather Pesach (Passover).  Just the other day I did some online searching to see if this is still the case.  While I could not find any current statistical data, what I did find was article after article, from diverse Jewish sources, that continue to claim that Pesach is the most celebrated of all Jewish holidays.

Why is that the case?

Of course one reason that is commonly held is that Pesach is such a family affair.  Traditionally, the centerpiece of its celebration – the Seder – takes place in the home.  It is not uncommon for family members to travel great distances so that they can share the Seder with their loved ones.  But is family togetherness a sufficient enough explanation for the overwhelming popularity of this celebration?  While it is certainly a significant contributing factor, by itself this explanation is not sufficient.  After all, there are many important opportunities for family gatherings.  If coming together with family is such a driving factor then how come we do not necessarily see this happening on such major family occasions as birthdays and anniversaries?  On those occasions, relatives living at a distance are quite content to fulfill their familial obligations with a phone call or a card, and maybe even sending a present.  Even when relatives are local, they can find themselves struggling to come to agreement upon a date and time for such a celebration.  The drive for family togetherness just does not seem equal to the power of the commanding voice of our personal schedules.

While the desire for family togetherness is important on Pesach, there has to be something more which lifts this holiday above all others on the Jewish calendar.

Could it be the rituals?  There is no question but that Jews love the powerful symbolism that are at the heart of Seder rituals.  Personally for me, the most powerful is when we take wine out of our cup as we recite each of the Ten Plagues, thereby symbolically diminishing our joy because the sweetness of our freedom was acquired at the price of the suffering of the Egyptians. But as powerful as the Seder rituals are, they alone cannot be the driving force behind the enormous popularity of Pesach.  For if it truly were the rituals, that indeed would be ironic, considering how so many American Jews have come to almost completely ignore the rituals of Shabbat.  If the need for rituals is so compelling, then why do our people cast aside the opportunity to immerse themselves in the rituals of our faith which are available to us on a weekly basis, not even to mention those that are daily available to us?

Perhaps the factor that carries Pesach over the top is history, for this is a holiday which seriously connects us with our Jewish past.  It strives to imaginatively bring us back to Egypt; to help us sense, even if just a little, what it might have been like to be a Jew living in slavery and then miraculously tasting the sweetness of freedom.  It reminds us of where we came from; our roots.  We need to connect with our history for it empowers us to better understand and appreciate how and why we came to be the people and the Jews we are today; to a better understanding of ourselves.  Deep in our hearts, whether or not we wish to openly admit it, we know that we are more than just this moment in time.  We are who we are today, not just because of what we are doing today with our lives, but also – significantly also – because we are the product of generations of our families – of Jews – who have struggled to reconcile their lives with the world in which they have found themselves, and often doing so by viewing their lives through the lens of Judaism.  Passover reminds us that as Jews, we are on a journey which began long before we were born and will continue long after we are gone.

In order for us to derive the fullest benefit of this Pesach encounter with the past, we should not limit our reflections solely to the ancient history of our people.  Rather, we should take this Pesach opportunity to reconnect and reflect upon our very own personal and family histories.  We need to confront not just the historical Jewish journey of the our people but also the personal Jewish journeys on which each and every one of us have been engaged.  As we sit at the Seder table we need to ask ourselves many personal questions:  How did we come to this point in our Jewish lives?  What were the contributing factors that have helped to make us the Jews we are today?  Who were those special people that had a hand in helping us to mold our Jewish selves?  How have we expressed our gratitude for this legacy we have received?  How have we worked to pass on these gifts to others?  How will we mold our Jewish future in such a way as to render due homage to our Jewish past?  As we recall the journey of our ancient ancestors from slavery to freedom, let us also ponder the Jewish journey of our own lives.

Have a joyful, reflective, and inspiring Pesach!