Hanukkah and Christmas
D’VAR TORAH / SERMON
RABBI DAVID BENJAMIN FAINSILBER
30 KISLEV 5780 // DECEMBER 27, 2019
This year’s Jewish calendar—
including the extended Octoberfest of High Holy Days—
has us now celebrating Hanukkah late in this month of December.
And with that, this year’s overlap with Christmas
has me thinking about our connections to
the predominant religion of this place—Christianity—
and our connections to our fellow citizens.
In a time of great polarization,
perhaps this coinciding of Hanukkah and Christmas
might bring two great peoples closer together.
The renowned Israeli author Amos Oz
tells the story of how he first learned
about what divides Jews and Christians,
and how our differences are not so great.
Writing in his book Dear Zealots,
published just months before his passing,
“When I was a child, my grandmother Shlomit explained to me the difference between a Jew and a Christian: ‘The Christians believe that the Messiah was already here, and that one day he will return. We Jews believe that the Messiah has not yet come but that he will one day.’ Then Grandma mused: ‘This disagreement has brought so much hatred and anger to the world, persecution of the Jews, inquisitions, pogroms, mass murders. But why? Why not just agree, all of us, Jews and Christians, to wait patiently and see what happens? If the Messiah comes one day and says: ‘I haven’t seen you for a long time, I’m so happy to see you again,’ the Jews will then have to acknowledge their mistake. But if, when he comes the Messiah says, ‘How do you do? Very pleased to meet you,’ then the Christian world will have to apologize to the Jews. Until then,’ Grandma concluded, ‘until the coming of the Messiah, why can’t we all just live and let live?”
Over the past decades,
Christian and Jewish relations have certainly improved.
A sign of this change,
and our shared interfaith connections in Stowe,
some years ago, Rabbi Brian Besser gifted a Hanukkiyah
to Saint John’s in the Mountains Episcopal Church.
Now, Jesus, of course, lived in the era
after the Hanukkah story took place.
You have to wonder: did Jesus get presents for 8 days?
Did Mary and Joseph give Jesus some chocolate gelt?
But I digress.
Each year, Father Rick Swanson has asked me
to come to one of their services that coincides with Hanukkah
to address their parishioners
and to light the menorah and chant the Hebrew blessings.
This year, I joined their congregation
on Christmas Eve, December 24th, this past Tuesday night,
the third night of Hanukkah.
Picture our own High Holy Days—
only this time: it’s Christmas and it’s Saint John’s.
It’s standing room only,
dozens of people are spilling into the foyer,
many others crammed into
their candle-lit, beautiful, and humble sanctuary.
Children wearing bowties and red skirts crowded in the front,
decorated pine trees with ornaments.
Even for a group of non-Jews,
Father Rick struggles to get the congregation quiet.
This is the 5 p.m. family-friendly service.
Babies are cooing.
They are here to celebrate the birth
of a child 2000 and 19 years ago.
I can’t help but consider my own relationship
to this Christian story.
Jews, myself included,
struggle with the Christian story,
and let’s just admit it,
sometimes have a chip on our shoulder about it.
What is that story that most Christians believe and celebrate—
that a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn,
I mean…the Holy Land…
a couple thousand years ago
died for our sins, was resurrected,
and will come back again
at some point in the end of days to save us?
And all we have to do is just believe in him and his divine grace
and we will be saved?
Maybe it’s our natural skeptical nature as Jews,
maybe it’s the years of persecution
at the hands of those who believed in this story,
maybe from that, it’s our way of keeping our distance
from our closest relatives,
but we don’t believe this story.
We never have.
It is not our story.
Indeed, it is one of the historical, religious, and emotional markers
that separates and distinguishes us
from our friends who do believe.
Yet, I am caught up in the majesty of it all.
There I am at Saint John’s.
As I walk up to their “bima” to light the Hanukkah candles,
I am seized by uncontrollable tears.
I am moved by the ritual and the beauty
shared by our Christian sisters and brothers.
I am a witness to their celebration
and a participant in prayer and fellowship in my own way—
I am present in
this shared human desire of coming together with ritual,
this human capacity of song and music to move people,
this human need to seek redemption through storytelling.
No, fear not—your rabbi did not have
a “come to Jesus conversion moment.”
But I did have a human moment—a moment of faith.
There and now,
I can stand alongside my faith-friends,
and believe alongside them
in the power of redemption and renewal,
and most especially,
our collective need for a greater light to shine down upon us—
to shine upon all of us.
And so, we come to the meaning of Hanukkah—
that equally incredulous story more nearly 2200 years ago
when a small band of Jews defeated a larger than life army,
and found oil that should have lasted but one day,
but lasted eight.
This is our holiday to suspend our own rational minds
and to believe that miracles do happen,
that light can shine even in the darkest times.
This is our holiday
to see the candles burning brightly,
and see the miracles, then and now—
nes gadol hayah sham,
a great miracle happened there and then,
nes gadol hayah po,
a great miracle happens here,
each miracle counted,
our miraculous Hanukkah stories from days of yore,
and the miracles of life today.
I celebrate the miracle that
as a Jew, a rabbi, a friend—
I was invited to Saint John’s
to represent our Jewish Community of Greater Stowe,
deeply moved by their willingness to have me there
on their most sacred night,
enacting our own holy mitzvah
of lighting Hanukkah candles with them.
Deeply moved by how history can evolve,
and relationships have the power to grow towards love and light.
And all the while celebrating the birth of a nice Jewish boy
who believed in the true power of the message:
love your neighbour as yourself.
Now that is something we all can believe in.
And to all our Christian friends, Merry Christmas.