Tag Archives: Christmas

Of Grandchildren, Chanukah, and Christmas

As I’m sure many of you know, I haven’t been contributing to this blog spot lately. It’s not so much because I don’t have the time, but rather because some of the “fire” or inspiration for doing so has cooled off.

I have no local community of faith and no longer have a steady stream of information coming in regarding the Messianic perspective on the Bible, the Messiah, and faith to employ as a muse.

Chanukah 2016

I had been considering writing something about Christmas and Chanukah (besides my little science fiction Chanukah story) and dreading it at the same time since, after all, it is somewhat expected, but then these issues collided with my regularly scheduled life.

A few things.

My son David is divorced with two children, my seven-year-old grandson and my almost eighteen-month-old granddaughter.

David is currently living with us to save up some dough, and his arrangement with his ex is that he gets the kids for one week and she gets them for the next.

That’s under normal circumstances.

Because she celebrates Christmas and we don’t, we’ve had them for the past week-and-a-half, and she’ll get them starting late Friday or early Saturday, and keep them for the next two weeks.

Since Christmas and the start of Chanukah both begin on December 24th this year, the grandkids will get Christmas but miss Chanukah.

My granddaughter wouldn’t care, but my grandson loves Chanukah. With this in mind, my family decided to celebrate Chanukah a week early this year so, for us, the fourth night of Chanukah begins at sundown tonight.

Another little factoid. David is dating (I personally think it’s on the rebound, but he says “no” and what do I know anyway?) and she celebrates Christmas, too.

star christmasSo last Sunday evening after my grandson lit the candles and my wife coached him through reciting the blessings, my son and his girlfriend produced a bunch of Christmas presents and gave them to my grandchildren.

I had no idea this was going to happen, and I found myself surprised, shocked, and more than a little dismayed.

I usually silently endure the Christmas season and am grateful when January rolls around so traffic goes back to normal and I don’t have to listen to Christmas music anymore. It’s not like I’ve got a case of “paganoia” about the holiday, I just find it overly commercialized and tedious.

But it invaded my home and without even the slightest warning.

At least no one dragged a Christmas tree into the house.

Which brings me to what really inspired today’s missive. Jewish actress Natalie Portman has a Christmas Tree.

This story was published as Jewish educational site Aish.com to illustrate the potential danger of Jewish assimilation into wider secular culture (or worse, directly into normative Goyishe Christianity).

They also published a parallel article, When Christmas Meets Hanukkah touting the same message.

Is it okay to mix Christmas and Chanukah together? Can you have a Chanukah menorah in your home alongside a Christmas tree? Is this acceptable intermarriage holiday practice?

Experts and authors such as Susan Katz Miller would probably say “yes,” but I’m not so sure.

It’s a foregone conclusion that my non-Jewish grandchildren will be raised with Christmas and Easter and all of that, but thanks to their Bubbe, they’ll also experience at least Chanukah and Passover and occasionally a smidgen of Sukkot.

natalie portman christmas tree
Natalie Portman, Image: Aish.com

My wife isn’t particularly observant (I wish she were more observant) and my son even less (non-existent). If he wasn’t living with us, he probably wouldn’t light the candles, and in spite of the fact that he complained about his ex-wife celebrating Christmas when he was married, he seems perfectly fine with giving his children Christmas presents for the sake of his new girlfriend.

If my family hadn’t been such a mixed bag of evolving religious practice when my own children were growing up, and if we had specifically raised them Jewish, maybe some of it would have stuck. I’d like to think so, even though there’s a crisis of assimilation into secularism attacking the upcoming Jewish generation.

All three of my kids identify as Jewish ethnically, but that’s about where it ends. I really don’t think mixing and matching is such a great idea in families (and if my son marries yet another non-Jewish wife and has more kids, it’ll just get worse). Granted, Natalie Portman can make whatever decisions she wants for her family, but if I had it to do over again, when my sons were born thirty years ago, I would have pushed my wife to join a local synagogue and start her (and my family’s) Jewish education right then and there.

That would have changed a whole lot though, so I’m conflicted. At that time, neither of us were religious, and as her non-Jewish spouse, if I had started attending shul with her and the kids, and if I had become entrenched in that lifestyle by the time we initially encountered Christianity some seven or so years later, I might not have become a believer, and then transitioned into a Judaically aware perspective thanks to first Hebrew Roots and then later Messianic Judaism.

How could I do that, and yet, for the sake of my Jewish children, how could I not?

Each of my three adult children will have to make their own path if they want to recapture what it is to be a Jew. I’ll help if they ask, but otherwise it’s totally up to them. It’s totally up to my long-suffering wife if she wants to become more observant (and she’s the product of an intermarriage as well). I’ve told her more than once that I’ll accept whatever decision she makes in that direction.

assimilationI have almost no control at all of what happens to my grandchildren. They’re not Jewish but I have this secret hope that they’ll become curious one day and want to investigate that part of their heritage (they could always convert).

The world is bleeding out Jews thanks to the hemorrhage of intermarriage and secular assimilation (except for the Orthodox, or so I’ve been told). I can’t fix it in my family, and can only watch and shake my head when I see my grandchildren rip into Christmas wrapping as the Chanukah lights burn just a few feet away.

May the Messiah come soon and in our day to return the Jewish people not only to Israel but to themselves.

Calm Down and Sanctify the Name of God

I saw the B.C. comic strip and it reminded me of the angst that is often expressed by both secular and religious people this time of year. “Christmas is pagan!” “Christmas is offensive!” “I celebrate Kwanzaa and Christmas offends me!” “I celebrate Festivus and everything offends me!”
As my long-suffering wife might say, “Oy!”

This is more a blog post about memes than any extended narrative or profound commentary. A message to the easily offended in the secular and religious blogosphere…chill out.

I’ve been monitoring a couple of conversations on various blogs, basically debates between Jewish and non-Jewish disciples of Yeshua and a Jewish anti-missionary who is on a mission, so to speak.

Then there’s what the Vatican had to say about the Jews and Jesus and how that’s stirred up a virtual firestorm in the digital realm. Dr. Michael Brown finally composed his formal response, which of course is critical of the Pope. Numerous Orthodox Rabbi’s signed what amounts to a response statement issued by the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and others have commented as well.

In the midst of all this, I’m pondering the recent death of six U.S. troops in Afghanistan, killed by a suicide bomber. I’m pleasantly surprised that a McDonald’s restaurant in Nashville has received such a positive response to painting a nativity scene on its windows. No, I don’t eat fast food nor do I celebrate Christmas, but I believe others have the right to do so.

keep calmI also believe those six soldiers had the right to live, but that was taken from them because they are at war. If any of their families celebrate Christmas, then this year, there will be grief and mourning adorning their trees instead of lights and ornaments. Christmas dinner will be ashes rather than turkey or goose.

I hadn’t actually realized this, especially after Hamas took control, but there’s been a Christian community in Gaza for nearly 2,000 years which only now is disappearing, being driven extinct by relentless terrorism.

You may think your faith traditions are threatened by other religious holidays, by secularism, by the government, or whoever you want to blame. Try being a Christian in Gaza. I can only imagine it’s a bit more of a struggle than the “problems” we face as people of faith in the U.S.

Christmas, whatever you think of it, arrives on Friday this year. A little over a week later, most folks will start taking their festive lights down and they’ll deposit their evergreen trees by the curb for orderly disposal.

Christmas, along with every other December holiday, will fade along with 2015 and the buzz about the latest Star Wars movie, and we’ll move on to other topics that offend us.

braceEvery year at about this time, the Aish website runs a story called The Christmas Tree. It’s relatively short and a wonderful illustration of how best to react when we confront a religious holiday that isn’t compatible with us for whatever reason. I’d like to think we are mature enough to respond to each other’s differences and distinctiveness the way the Rabbi in the story reacted to the loving but mistaken act of kindness bestowed upon the Rav’s family by their Irish maid.

When we can not only understand but practice sympathy instead of anger and offense, then we will truly have learned what it is to be a Kiddush Hashem, to sanctify the Name of the Almighty.

Yesterday when I was making a small purchase at a local store, the cashier wished me “Merry Christmas.” I returned the sentiment. How could I be offended at her sincere well wishes toward me? If “Merry Christmas” offends you, then I graciously invite you to deal with it.

The Light of Our Traditions

I’ll share a little secret with you. Sometimes, I really don’t like the holidays, but probably not for the reasons you think.

There’s a temptation to read into the reasons a person like me might “disengage” from Christmas, even though my wife and (Jewish) family members consider me a Christian. You might think I’m freaking out over the “pagan origins” of Christmas. Maybe you believe I abhor the secular, consumerism associated with Christmas. Along those lines, you could even consider that I want to put the “Christ” back in “Christmas”.

Actually, the crass materialism connected to one of the biggest American holidays of the year is probably my biggest objection of those listed above. The intense greed and “feeding frenzy” chaotic power surge of “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” are more objectionable to me than people putting up a real or artificial pine tree and decorating it with lights and ornaments.

And of course, my family is Jewish, making Christmas a “non-starter” in our home. Really, I don’t miss it. Well, not exactly.

Children's Christmas PageantI’ve written about Christmas before (do a search on “Christmas” on this blog and you’ll see the list…it’s long), and although I’m not fond of this time of year, I really don’t care if secular people or even Christians celebrate it.

Every person has their cherished traditions, as does every family. Christmas is a cherished tradition for many, many American families. Some see it as a way to celebrate the birth of the Savior and take the opportunity to loudly and publicly praise his advent into our world. Some of those same people also seize the moment and choose to give back extra to the community through various forms of charity.

Others, who are not religious, still view Christmas as a time to gather family and friends in whom they find physical and emotional warmth at this time of year, which, here in Idaho, can be pretty cold and dark. Even the areligious bask in the joy of their children on Christmas morning as they open their presents, enjoy roast turkey or goose for the celebratory meal, and marvel in the beauty of neighborhoods decked in the glow of seasonal lights. And sometimes the areligious outshine the Christians in our communities in giving to charity and helping give to those who are doing without.

Personally, I’ve enjoyed seasonal lights recently, they just weren’t Christmas lights.

Every night for the first seven nights of Chanukah, my wife and daughter would gather around our two Chanukiah, say the blessings, and light the Chanukah lights one by one.

I usually only become aware of it when I hear the blessings being said and, when I peak out into our living room toward the kitchen and dining areas, I see my wife and daughter illuminated by the glow.

It still stings a little, but I try to understand that, from their point of view, this is a celebration of Jewish lights, Jewish victories, and Jewish freedom, and the miracles of God toward Israel. As a Christian, my tradition isn’t supposed to include Jewish tradition, so they don’t think to invite me.

But last night was different.

Actually, all of yesterday was different.

lambMy wife and daughter being foodies, can take all day to prepare for a single dinner. My daughter had to work yesterday, so my wife had me fire up the Traeger and pour in the wood pellets so it was prepared, first for beef brisket, and then for lamb. My job as a non-cook, is to clean, usually the ever mounting mess in the kitchen, but also to vacuum the living room and such. I also get sent to the store for various last minute items.

I had an irrational thought about whether or not the stores would be open, only to remember that, for the rest of the world, Chanukah is no big deal. No store closures or limited hours in Idaho for a Jewish celebration.

Finally 5 o’clock arrived and so did the family. Children and grandchildren gathered together. It wasn’t idyllic. These are human beings and we’re a human family, not a Hallmark greeting card. Still, I felt a warmth that didn’t come from the glow of a well used stove top and oven.

I was remembering other family holiday gatherings of the past. I was remembering Christmas, of a sort. Not the tree or the presents or all of that, but the feeling of family coming together, good company, good food, and playing games (my grandson cleaned up on gelt when we played dreidel).

My daughter, who actually knows Hebrew and doesn’t require transliterations of the blessings, helped my six-year old grandson recite the blessing to ignite the Chanukah lights for the final night. His pronunciation was terrible and I doubt he understood the significance, especially since his parents don’t (as far as I know) incorporate any Jewish observance or tradition in their home. But if we can expose him and his now nearly six-month old sister, to activities such as Chanukah, Passover, and Sukkot, year after year, then maybe, just maybe, when they’re older, they’ll be curious enough about their father’s Jewish heritage to look into it on their own.

chanukahOK, that’s pretty unlikely, but what the heck. It’s worth a shot.

That’s what tradition is and what it does. It’s a way to teach your children the values and history of the family, to pass on to the next generation what practices we think are important and why they mean so much to us.

The Jews are experts at this and have been passing on traditions from parent to child for thousands of years, and this, as much as anything, has preserved the Jewish people and the functional practice of Judaism from generation to generation, when over 99% of the rest of the world has actively been trying to destroy them, either through outright extermination or assimilation, which amounts to the same thing.

Although I no longer connect with Christmas, I can hardly distain those who hold it most dear. They’re doing what we’re doing…passing along family and cultural traditions and values. We may or may not approve of the specifics of those values, but we can hardly call the process into question because what they do is what we do.

I know some secular people who have objected to, for example, various practices in Orthodox Judaism involving children, such as what they see as excessively modest dress or little boys wearing their hair in Payot (Hebrew: פֵּאָה‎; plural: פֵּאוֹת), even going so far as to call it child abuse.

But it’s a tradition of their culture and a rather benign one at that. Are we to criticize the traditions of other families and other cultures just because they are not like our own?

So if one family celebrates Chanukah and another Christmas, why the panic attack?

family chanukahHeck, I remember when my children were quite young. We still lived in Southern California. We still celebrated Christmas. My wife had friends, an older Jewish couple (they were friends of her parents actually) who visited us on Christmas Day. One year, they took us to a Judaica store, one of the few businesses open on December 25th, and it was quite interesting.

They didn’t seem to object that we were celebrating Christmas (even though they knew my wife was Jewish, though she wasn’t religious at the time). It was an opportunity for us to get together and spend some time with each other. Friendship and family works like that.

So last night, I enjoyed the lamb and the latkes. We ate homemade ice cream and played dreidel. My grandson helped light the Chanukah lights and I got to stand right there with my family and watch our home become illuminated.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was good. I hope next year it will be even better.

Christmas is Coming! Don’t Panic!

This is the awkward time of year for Messianic believers. Many of us have opted out of Christmas, something our families and friends do not understand. It is inconceivable that anyone who professes faith in Messiah Yeshua (Jesus Christ) would not celebrate Christmas. It is inconceivable even though December 25th is most definitely not the day of Yeshua’s birth, and even though the customs observed in churches and homes have their origins in decidedly un-Christian pagan celebrations.

-from “Jesus Without Christmas”
published at The Barking Fox
Reblogged at natsab

And so it begins. The annual expression of angst at the approach of perhaps the world’s most well-known religious and secular holiday: Christmas.

I really didn’t think I was going to write about Christmas this year. Frankly, I’ve got too much else going on right now to really care and I have come to a certain peace about it all and no longer feel I have to contend with Christmas, let alone have a panic attack over it.

Yes, back when I was going to church, I’d avoid attending the Sunday services nearest to Christmas as well as all of the other Christmas programming, but that’s not because I felt I’d be tainted with “pagan influences”. After all, there’s no direct Biblical reference to Chanukah, and yet, along with many or most Jewish households, there’s a small but dedicated group of non-Jewish Christians, Messianic Gentiles, and Hebrew Roots believers who light the menorah (also not commanded in the Bible) for eight evenings in commemoration of the defeat of the Greek oppressors by the Maccabees and the rededication of the Temple, as well as to honor the “light of the world” (John 8:12).

It is true that my house is the only one on my block that is mostly dark every evening, surrounded by the more festive lights of our Christmas observing neighbors. But then again, my wife is Jewish and my feelings on the matter aside, it’s perfectly expected that the only special light visible from within our home for the next week or so (as I write this) should be that of the Chanukah candles on our menorah.

But Christmas is less evil than it is a tradition. It’s a terrifically lucrative tradition for retail outlets as events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday indicate. If I have a major objection to Christmas, it is because the holiday has become a symbol of both personal and corporate greed and gluttony, not because I think putting lights on a natural or artificial pine tree is “pagan.”

Most Christians I know are quite aware that Jesus wasn’t born anywhere near December 25th and accept that the date they celebrate the birth of Christ was established by tradition rather than empirical fact. Nevertheless, if Christians choose to become more Christ-like, more generous, giving to the poor, kinder to their neighbor, at this time of year, who am I to complain?

I mean no disrespect to the sensitivities of the author at “The Barking Fox” or Pete at “natsab,” but I really feel the traditional response of Hebrew Roots Gentiles to the advent of Christmas (pun intended) is overblown. Sure, it took my parents a few years to adjust after my wife and I announced we were no longer celebrating Christmas, but they are now perfectly content to send Chanukah cards to us and the kids. I do have some relatives, my brother for instance, who still send Christmas cards, but no one in my family (as far as I know) complains because we don’t reciprocate.

brace yourselfI’m reminded of Toby Janicki’s blog post of four years ago called The Scoop on What About Paganism, a topic he expanded upon greatly in his lecture series “What About Paganism” (available on Audio CD and in MP3 format). Toby coined the term “paganoia” in his lectures, and I think the term is fitting.

The Jewish people I know don’t really have that much of a problem with Christmas beyond having to explain to certain people that Chanukah is not the “Jewish Christmas”. In fact, in cities with a sufficiently large Jewish population, it’s something of a tradition for Jews to go out to Chinese dinner on Christmas Day. This is based on Buddhism being the primary religious expression for many Chinese immigrants which means they aren’t celebrating on December 25th either. I wish I lived in a city that had enough Jewish and Chinese people to make observing this particular tradition practical. It sounds delicious.

Christmas is a tradition. So is Chanukah. They both have their basis in events that took place around two-thousand years ago in another country. They have both been integrated into the Christian and Jewish faiths respectively. Some small number of “Messianic Gentiles” (however you want to define the term) consider themselves caught in the middle, but we aren’t really. There’s nothing wrong with traditions. They are what we make of them.

I’ll be traveling with my parents on Christmas Day, not because it’s Christmas per se, but just because it worked out that way (long story) and Christmas is a great day to be on the road. Not many people going anywhere on December 25th because most of them are already at their destination.

The uptake on all this? Christmas is coming. Don’t panic.

Oh, and my Chanukah related blog post will publish tomorrow morning.

Addendum: I just found a reposting of last year’s blog article Let’s Not Get Strange About Christmas, Shall We? by Rabbi Stuart Dauermann and thought I should add a link to it here. He does a much better job at explaining the “paganoia” around Christmas.

Christmas at Arm’s Length

Interfaith and InclusiveAs always, as an interfaith community, our aim is not to meld, mash-up, mix, water-down or confuse our two religions. Instead, we strive to celebrate each holiday, whether Jewish or Christian, with full respect and all the trimmings. So how and why are these celebrations different from those you would find in any church or synagogue? Often, we begin and end a celebration by reciting our interfaith responsive reading, which is not a statement of creed, but a recognition that some of us are Jews, some of us are Christians, some of us have interfaith identities, and we are all equal members of this community. For me, simply knowing that we are an interfaith community changes my perception of any event: ancient rituals, songs and prayers, shimmer with the newness of radical inclusivity.

-Susan Katz Miller
“Lessons and Carols: Interfaith Community”
On Being Both

It’s Sunday morning as I write this and I’m avoiding church until January. Why? Because of Christmas.

Wait! Let me explain.

While Susan Katz Miller belongs to a community that can honor the different religious observances of its members, I’ve been attending a more traditional Baptist church. I remember hearing about how some of the church members participated in an anti-abortion rally at a new Planned Parenthood building some months back. Among the protesters were people from local Mormon and Catholic churches. My Pastor spoke of the event, but I don’t recall if it was from the pulpit or in a personal conversation with me. He said that a Catholic Priest was one of the speakers at the event and the Priest addressed the group with words something like, “We are all believers” or “We are all Christians.”

The point my Pastor had to make, representing the general perspective of our church, is that, because of the significant theological differences involved, he doesn’t consider Catholics and Mormons as “fellow believers” but rather, as those who are outside the Christian “camp.” Sure, they all came together at the event because of a common purpose, but the barriers constructed between those different faith communities, as far as he was concerned, were firm and inviolate.

I don’t say this to speak poorly about my Pastor or the church I attend. I consider him and the people I worship with to be truly devoted to God and desiring to serve Him in all that they do. However, there are distinct boundaries that contain the church and one may cross those barriers only at their own risk.

Almost a month ago, I called myself a Christian who studies Messianic Judaism. What that means in a nutshell, is that I am a non-Jewish believer in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and that I choose to study the Bible within a framework that takes into account the Jewish environment, perspectives, customs, and culture in which the Bible was authored, using that as a lens in filtering my view of Jesus.

As you might imagine, that somewhat crosses one or more of the barriers that contains my church’s theology and doctrine. My periodic meetings and conversations with my Pastor attest to the differences between us, and we’ve been honest that we are both trying to convince the other of our individual points of view.

I must say, I’m learning a lot, not only about church history and the development of fundamentalism in Christianity, but about my own opinions and where they come from. You never learn more about what you believe and why than when you are required to defend it.

Children's Christmas PageantPastor and his wife are spending the rest of the month (or most of it) in Florida to celebrate Christmas with his family. It will certainly be warmer than the December I’ve been experiencing here in Idaho. But that leaves behind Christmas at the church and today (as I write this) there won’t even be Sunday School.

There will be the Children’s Christmas Pageant. The kids have been practicing for about a month and I’m sure they’re looking forward to their big moment.

But that was several days ago as you read this, even though as I am writing, it is still before dawn on Sunday morning.

My family and I left Christmas behind about ten years or so ago and we’ve never looked back. That’s pretty much a given for my wife and kids since they’re Jewish. My married son’s wife is very much into Christmas and while my son doesn’t resist her efforts to put up a tree, lights, and decorations, he doesn’t participate either. The rest of my family just tries to ignore the season, although one of my sister-in-laws has been sending email Christmas cards of a humorous nature to the missus.

I quoted Miller’s blog post because it is a portrait of not blending together different faith traditions into a mixing bowl, but rather, interfaith families choosing to honor each other’s traditions and celebrations without having to surrender anything about their own.

Another member of our community confessed to me this week that he had bought his wife a Christmas present for the first time, after decades of marriage. A most loving and supportive husband, as a Jew he just had not been able to transcend the bitter history of religious conflict and wrap his head around the idea of a Christmas gift. He credited our interfaith community with his shift in thinking, and his ability to finally arrive, bearing a gift from afar.

I never said it was easy, but apparently, it’s possible. It requires a certain amount of willingness and a great deal of courage to overcome the fears and inhibitions of a lifetime. I don’t have a community like that either in my family or corporately, and even if I had access to a corporate community, attendance would conflict with my home life. I’m not even sure how my family tolerates my attending an “ordinary” church.

I’ve chosen a path that I believe is right and that I believe is right for me. In doing so, I have to walk away from all other paths. I suppose, from an outside observer’s point of view, it must look like I’m trying to walk both sides of the street, Christianity and Judaism. This actually isn’t the case. My wife and any Jewish person I’ve ever encountered, consider me a Christian, and so I am. A Christian is simply a person (typically non-Jewish) who has faith that the Jesus Christ of the Bible is the promised Savior and Messiah and the one who will return as the King of Israel and the world.

The only difference, and it’s a big one, is that my perspective of how I perceive God, Messiah, the Bible, and everything all that means, is substantially different from most of the traditional Church (big “C”). Most religious communities permit little or no permeability of their distinctive boundaries and barriers that contain who they are and keep out everyone else. The price of admission is to adopt the theologies, doctrines, and dogmas within their specific container and disavow everything else.

But my container is somewhat unique. Oh sure, a lot of other people occupy my container (more or less) but my container is virtual. It exists “in the cloud,” so to speak. The people who share a large portion of my understanding exist all over the world, but few, if any, are right here in “River City.” And as I said, even if we did get together, it would violate certain family requirements for me to participate in any significant or regular way.

Blogging is about as close as it gets and even that’s dicey sometimes.

One of the requirements contained within the church I attend is Christmas. It’s the day the vast majority of Christians choose to honor the birth of Jesus, and a great deal of custom, tradition, and fanfare surround not only that day, but the entire month in which it occurs.

But it’s not “me.” I don’t resonate with Christmas as a Christian. Watching everyone at church get really excited about Christmas (my Pastor was listening to Christmas music in his office even before Thanksgiving) just accentuates my sense of alienation, my “not-belongingness.”

Helping the HomelessI don’t disdain those who choose to celebrate Christmas. In fact, some Christians use this time of year to exceptionally demonstrate their desire to serve God by behaving more “Christ-like” in giving to charity and showing kindness to others. If Christmas is their inspiration for doing good, who am I to argue?

Unlike Miller, I’m not “both,” I’m just “me,” whatever “me” is. Actually, I’m getting a better and clearer picture of what “me” is all the time. The mist is dissipating and the sun is beginning to shine on the path I have selected from all of the paths I’ve considered.

It’s just a path that doesn’t hold very many fellow travelers. And almost none of them celebrate Christmas. I’ll see what church is like after the lights and decorations have come down next month.

Addendum: I just wanted to add that some traditional Christians also don’t celebrate Christmas for a variety of reasons, I for one am not avoiding it out of some sense of paganoia (a term coined by First Fruits of Zion teacher and author Toby Janicki) or the irrational fear that celebrating Christmas automatically makes you an idol worshiper. It’s a matter of personal conviction and taking on board a more Judaic view of the Messiah. It’s as simple as that.

The Sukkot Season of Joy

have-sukkah-will-travelSeven days shall you dwell in booths (Leviticus 23:42) … and you shall only be rejoicing (Deuteronomy 16:15).

Succos is the festival designated as the season of our gladness. Yet the commentaries state that one of the symbolisms of the succah, a temporary hut, is that we dwell in it for seven days to symbolize man’s temporary sojourn on earth for his average life span of seven decades (Psalms 90:10).

Human mortality is a rather sobering thought; it is hardly conducive to rejoicing. Most often we do not think about our mortality, and when circumstances force us to face it, we quickly dismiss it from our minds and go on acting as though we will live forever.

How different Torah values are from secular values! The Torah teaches us that there is an eternal life, a wholly spiritual life, whose bliss is far greater than the human mind can imagine. We are placed on this planet for our ephemeral earthly existence only to give us an opportunity to prepare for the eternal life.

The Torah teaches us to enjoy life, and if it restricts some pleasures, it is because we should enjoy life in a manner that befits a human being. Furthermore, our joy of living should not be diminished by the awareness of our mortality, nor need we deny it. The succah – the symbol of our temporary stay on earth – is beautifully decorated, and we enjoy our festive meals therein. Even our temporary existence can be beautiful and happy, and our faith in the eternal life should enhance that happiness.

Today I shall …

… try to enjoy life as befits a spiritual person, knowing that the true life of man is not the fleeting one, but that of eternity.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tishrei 15”

I have to admit that at this time of year, sometimes I envy Jewish people. The traditions surrounding the celebration of Sukkot are so rich and full of life. Sure, I can build a sukkah and I can observe, to some degree, the same traditions, but I wonder what it must be like to have a life-long experience of such celebrations. What memories do Jewish people have of childhood, eating in a sukkah each year, “partying” with relatives and friends, singing, dancing, rejoicing?

I’ve come to the party far too late and worse, I was too late to bring my children. If I had been more timely, perhaps, my son would build a sukkah for his wife and child each year. Face it, in terms of traditions and spiritual depth, Sukkot has got Christmas beat all hollow.

I recently came across a Facebook page called Jewish People Around the World. The stories and photos of Sukkot observance are just fabulous. Certainly if, as Rabbi Twerski says, the Torah teaches us to enjoy life, then Sukkot is one of the crowning jewels of that Torah sentiment.

Rabbi Twerski also said this:

God wants us to enjoy worldly goods, but to do so in a manner that befits a spiritual people, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Sukkot_Priestly_BlessingSukkot, for all its focus on being a “season of joy” does not focus on just the individual seeking his or her own joy as another of Rabbi Twerski’s commentaries notes:

Rabbi Mordechai of Nesh’chiz looked forward all year to the mitzvah of the Four Species on Succos. Since a fine esrog was costly and Rabbi Mordechai was hardly a man of means, he would accumulate small coins all year round, even depriving himself of food, in order to be able to afford an esrog.

A few days before Succos, Rabbi Mordechai joyfully took the money he had saved, and in high spirits, went off to buy the coveted esrog. On the way, he encountered a man sitting at the side of the road, weeping bitterly. He inquired as to the reason for the man’s grief, and the latter told him, “Woe is to me! I earn my living with my horse and wagon, and this morning my nag died. How am I to feed my wife and children?”

“How much do you need to buy another horse?” Rabbi Mordechai asked.

The sum that the man specified was exactly the amount that Rabbi Mordechai had laboriously saved all year long for the esrog. Without giving it another thought, he gave his purse to the man. “Here, my dear man. Go buy yourself a horse’

After the man joyfully left with the money, Rabbi Mordechai said, “Oh well. All of Israel will be fulfilling the mitzvah of the Four Species with an esrog, but I will do so with a horse.”

Rabbi Mordechai’s sacrifice of his personal comfort all year round teaches us how precious is the mitzvah of the Four Species, but his final act teaches us that the mitzvah of tzedakah (charity) is even greater.

Today I shall…

… try to realize the greatness of the commandment of charity, to make certain that another person has the means to survive.

I mentioned Christmas before, which I suppose is the closest thing in Christian tradition to Sukkot (apart from Thanksgiving, which strictly speaking, isn’t a “Christian” holiday). I think for some Christians, teaching charity and giving is the focus of that holiday, but for most people, including most Christians, all attention is drawn on buying and consuming material goods for their own sake and for ours, not for the sake of other people.

Also, as we read in the first quote from Rabbi Twerski, Sukkot teaches us the difference between temporal, material values and those for the sake of Heaven, and yet even eternal values are celebrated with the joys of our material world. Our mortal life is much like living in a sukkah, while what is beyond can be compared to basking in the glory of God on His Throne.

If it comes down to experiencing our own joy and providing joy to others in material ways that summon the eternal, I say, is it too much to ask for both?