The God Squad: What the rabbi loves about Christmas
One of the oldest traditions that Father Tom Hartman and I created and preserved during the many years we wrote this column together was to write two holiday columns in December. In one, Tommy would tell what he loved about Chanukah and I would tell what I loved about Christmas. With his passing from this world to the world to come, the Chanukah column by him is gone. Basically, he loved the lights of the menorah because they reminded him of Christmas tree lights. He loved latkes, which are the potato pancakes eaten on Hanukah. He ate them with applesauce at our home and could not understand why I ate them with sour cream. I explained that my ancestors were all from Russia and they had extra sour cream left over after making borsht. He loved the family gathering and the dreidels, which are the little tops with Hebrew letters on the four sides which remind us that “A great miracle happened there.” Like me, Tommy was worried about the commercialization of Chanukah and Christmas and its corrosive effect on the spiritual meaning of the holiday. I explained to Tommy that Hanukah was really a minor Jewish holiday. The Book of Maccabees was not even included in the Hebrew Bible, but that being in such close juxtaposition to Christmas, Hanukah inevitably, but sadly, became Christianized. I used to have kids ask me in the synagogue if it was OK to have a Chanukah bush. I told them that it was not OK in the nicest way possible, but the kids were not pleased. The Hanukah/Christmas competition is unfair and unbalanced. In the springtime, the Passover/Easter competition is much fairer. Two major holidays that are connected (the Last Supper was a Passover meal) and each teaching the message of redemption from sin and the freedom that comes with taking God into your life.
All this still leaves me with the joyous task of telling you what I love about Christmas. I love above all the message, also at the heart of Hanukah, that miracles are real. Things all happen for a cause but sometimes that cause comes from God and there is no rational way to fully explain it. Miracles are not necessarily a violation of natural law, although some are. Miracles can be natural events that arrive at such an opportune time, they change our spiritual and physical and historical landscape forever. I want you to consider, dear readers, that we are living in the midst of a miracle right now and that miracle is the development of a vaccine against the COVID-19 virus that promises to finally bring the world out of this deep tunnel of sacrifice, suffering, and death.
While it is true that we have vaccines against other viruses like smallpox and polio, Ebola and children’s vaccines against measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, chicken pox, polio, hepatitis A and B, rotavirus, pneumococcus, haemophilus influenzae and meningococcal disease, nevertheless, vaccines against many diseases like malaria and HIV still have eluded doctors and scientists, and some, like the annual flu vaccine, are not 100 percent effective. Additionally, the development of all these vaccines took years of research to bear therapeutic fruit.
However, now, just when we needed it the most, after barely four months of research, we have several vaccines coming to us with over 90 percent efficacy. This is not just good luck. Luck is not a strong enough word to express our gratitude and our amazement at this unprecedented achievement. I say that these vaccines are miracles. They are such good news that they change everything from utterly bleak to utterly hopeful. I have no desire and no need to rank this miracle against the Jewish miracle of the Hanukah oil that lasted eight days or the Christian miracle of the birth of a savior in Bethlehem. Miracles are not amenable to rankings. The point is that sometimes, when we least expect it, things happen that give life and hope a new birthing. In the midst of this season of miracles, let us not commit the unpardonable sin of overlooking the miracle that is about to save our lives.
Merry Christmas to come for all my dear Christian readers.
On the best possible spiritual reaction to betrayal E from Lake Worth, Florida, had some deep thoughts:
I think it seems so hard to forgive because we want to make it right, or we want revenge or at least circumstances to “clear” or justify us. What helps me most is to remember that all judgment, and retribution, belongs to God alone. I am His and He’s got this. Whatever the offense or betrayal, I am not responsible for the outcome. I can leave it with God who judges and rewards faithfully … in this life or the next. This is truly most freeing!
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)
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