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.

IT’S THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR

To the best of my knowledge, Christmas Eve coincides with erev Chanukah four times every one hundred years. This is one of them. Coincidence aside, I believe that there is much that we Jews can learn, as so many in this world celebrate a virgin birth, part and parcel of Immaculate Conception.
Christmas is a time for celebration. The “faithful, joyful and triumphant” are beckoned to Bethlehem. Mankind is exhorted to celebrate a miracle. Chanukah is also time for celebration. But the focus of Chanukah is not the celebration of a miraculous birth, but rather of a miraculous life. Modern day Modiin is a city of just under 100,000 located pretty much midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Two thousand years ago, Modiin was the hometown of the Maccabees. Thanks to their daring and heroic efforts, the Maccabees taught us what a miraculous life is all about. Time after time, the Maccabees not only went up against a Greek enemy, they went up against the odds. Chanukah has done a phenomenal job in inculcating in us the miracle of the oil as well as the miracle of the battle. Chanukah has yet to imbue us with the miracle of the lives led by Mattathias, the Kohen Gadol or High Priest, his five sons as well as their followers. It is their lives that we should be celebrating.
Joseph and Mary aside, Christmas centers itself around one individual. Christmas asks that we believe in the birth of one child who will one day bring salvation to this world. Chanukah also centers itself around one individual. Chanukah also asks that we believe. But rather than focus on a child, Judaism asks that each of us believes in our self. Judaism is a religion of defiance – in the very best sense of the word. Judaism maintains that heroes are not limited to Maccabee like warriors who go up against bigger, superior equipped and better trained armies. The greatest challenge warns Judaism is not to succumb to self-doubt or apathy or lethargy. These are the enemies that threaten us. Believing in our self enables us to work wonders as well as to and accomplish what we thought to be unbelievable. Chanukah challenges us to become modern day Maccabees. The Maccabees were victorious because they believed in themselves. If we truly wish to celebrate their victories, we can afford to do no less when it comes to believing in ourselves.
Peace on earth is predicated on mankind’s response to a heavenly act. Because of the miracle in the manger, mankind is charged with the responsibility of living as well as disseminating the teachings of the divine. It is a daunting task that requires a tremendous amount a dedication as well as an endless amount of work. Chanukah also sees the interconnection between miracles and hard work. Only Chanukah sees it in reverse order. If the Maccabees taught us anything, it’s that the hard work on our part impressed HaShem to such an extent that He wanted to participate as well. This explains the miraculous victory; this explains the miraculous oil. In both situations it was mankind, not HaShem who had to take the initiative.
Should it ever happen that you overhear someone saying that Chanukah is a Jewish Christmas, just smile knowing that in some respects they are diametric opposites of one another.