YOU DECORATED MY LIFE

Contemporary American culture assures us that well before the turkey has tickled our taste buds, our eyes begin to feast on a plethora of Christmas decorations that pop up in the neighborhood. Such was the case with a house on the other side of the street. “Your house is clearly in the forefront,” I said to Julia Boyce who was in my office the other day. The Boyce house had been so tastefully (professionally) decorated, that I had to stop myself from giving Julia a big “Yasher Koach.” My neighbors’ house notwithstanding, I reassessed my comment hours later. I began to think about misplaced emphasis on decorations on the part of Christians, come Christmas and given our proclivity as Jews to parrot the greater culture, our misplaced emphasis on decorations, come the Festival of Lights.

Forgive me for “jumping the fence” and preaching a Christmas sermon before a church filled with Christians on the eve of December 24th, but if a preacher  really wanted to celebrate the birth in Bethlehem, then he or she would do well to instruct his or her parishioners to decorate the world with teachings surrounding a birth that would ultimately change the world beyond wildest expectations. Joseph and Mary may have been the first Jews to be turned away and refused a night’s stay.  Subsequent generations of Jews would be turned away and refused a life’s stay.  Isn’t it time for Christians to realize that come December 25th, mistletoe misses the point?

Once the Christian world is able to discern the difference between decorations that beautify the home and decorations that beautify the world, we, their “older brothers” will in all likelihood follow suit.

“Do you see what I see” should be the lyrics of a Chanukah song. Jews should be challenged to see various Maccabean messages in the flames of the candles irrespective of the creativity of the menorah that holds those candles. Shouldn’t a rabbi, an honest rabbi, who is untouched by the commercialism that has permeated the lives of his people, be reminding his congregation that as creative as Walt Disney Chanukah menorahs are, relegating the message of Chanukah to Mickey and Minnie, Donald and Daisy is pure fantasyland? It isn’t the menorah, or any other tangible object brought into Jewish homes for that eight-day period that decorates and beautifies, it is the very message contained in the flames of those Chanukah lights. Shouldn’t a rabbi be telling his congregants that they have it all wrong when it comes to making use of the flames of the Chanukah candles? Shouldn’t a rabbi tell his people that the flames are off limits only when it comes to physical benefit? Isn’t it time then to look into those flames and see the dark color closest to the flame and recall how Chanukah began in a dark period of time during our history, when an internecine struggle was rearing its head between Hasmoneans and Hellenists? Shouldn’t Chanukah be a time to show that the harmony of the lights more than offsets the acrimony that festered between groups of Jews?  Wouldn’t the ultimate Chanukah decoration for any home  be one where there is an emphasis is placed on the fact that no two flames are alike? Shouldn’t there be an explanation  that some flames will be larger while other flames will be smaller? Couldn’t it be pointed out that neither the size of the flame nor the intensity of the flame has any bearing whatsoever as to which flame will go out first? Doesn’t the fact that  all candles are standing together overshadow the differences of color, flame size, and burning time?

Our Christian brethren are busy decorating their homes because of a miracle that  that would ultimately change their lives, not their homes. Perhaps we Jews can busy ourselves by using the lessons found through looking deeply into the flames of the Chanukah lights. Let us make miracles happen. Let us illuminate our homes so that we ultimately bring light into the lives of those we touch. Let us decorate this world.

FIREWORKS

Not that it’s a contest, but when it comes to fireworks, the outside world doesn’t hold a candle – Roman or otherwise, to us. As Jews, we are the world champion of fireworks. Realize, if you will, that 70 candles are lit annually in Jewish households where festivals and holidays are observed. That’s in addition to yahrzeit candles, Havdalah candles, Shiva candles (G-d forbid,) and Shabbat candles. But it’s more than just numbers! Fireworks are designed to light up the skies. Candles in Jewish homes are designed to light up our lives.

With the exception of one middle letter, the Hebrew word for fire, eish, and the Hebrew word for human, ish, are identical. As far as Judaism is concerned, it is more than mere coincidence. Fire can only exist in a medium where there is both fuel and oxygen. Take away either the fuel or the oxygen and the fire will quickly die out. The very same holds true for humans. Humans also require fuel and oxygen. Take away either the fuel (food) or the oxygen and the human will ultimately die. Judaism, however, goes even one step further when it comes to humans. Aside from food and air, Judaism understands the two necessary components for survival as metaphors for physicality and spirituality. For a healthy life, both are necessary. This is why Judaism looks at the flame of a candle and sees it reaching high, as though it were clamoring for spirituality, only to be reminded that it must remain anchored to the candle, its source of fuel representing the material world.

Fireworks not only light up the skies, but they do so with resplendent colors. Come July 4th of each year, the night skies are sprayed with a panoply of colors that might well cause artists to sit up and take notice. In this realm, Judaism cannot compete, nor does it have any desire to do so. The flames that have served to illuminate Jewish homes over the millennia are comprised of colors that are basic and simple – orange/yellow and blue/black. Whether the flames celebrate a miraculous event (Chanukah) or a heartbreaking event (Shiva,) Judaism reminds us that life – a healthy, normal life – is a combination of dark days represented by the blue/black hue and bright days represented by the orange/yellow hue. Judaism also reminds us that a healthy, normal life is one that is no different than the typical flame; the orange/yellow bright days will far outshine the blue/black dark days.

Last but not least, fireworks are bedazzling. The intricate designs that streak across the horizon, resulting from engineered ingredients within every candle, Roman or otherwise, explain why Americans set aside time and make it a point to watch the fireworks displays. Jewish “fireworks” are limited to one design. Most dismiss Jewish “fireworks” as a mere flame.  Precious few realize that that flame shape and tear shape are one and of the same. And with good reason! Just as Judaism recognizes two primary colors of flames, so too does Judaism recognize two different types of tears. There are tears of sadness; there are tears of joy. While I doubt any studies have been made or any polls taken, I can’t help but wonder which candles are lit, if any, in greater number in Jewish homes, yahrzeit candles or Shabbat/festival candles. I pray that it is the latter. In life, there will always be tears. G-d willing, the tears of joy will far outnumber the tears of sadness.

In all likelihood, the fireworks celebrating July 4th leave a special impression. I hope the fireworks celebrating the Jewish calendar as well as Jewish life-cycle events will do the very same, if not more.