What We Can Learn From Christmas

Sermon given the morning of Rosh Hashanah, September 25, 1996, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

My father is one of the nicest people I know. Nevertheless, for years now, he has been threatening to blackmail me. One day, unless I satisfactorily pay him off, he is going to mail the home movies from my childhood to the Temple. Then, all of you will see your Associate Rabbi, up to the age of six, decorating the Christmas tree, hanging up his Christmas stocking, and opening up gifts on Christmas morning. Then, Dad theorizes, my career will go up in smoke.

Yes, it’s true. My family did celebrate Christmas when I was a child, despite the fact that we were always Jewish. We stopped when I was about seven-years-old, but suffice it to say that I do have some first-hand knowledge of the power of Christmas and its moving symbols. This brings me to the topic of today’s sermon. On one of the holiest days of the Jewish year, I would like to speak about one of the most sacred days on the Christian calendar. Believe it or not, my sermon today is about Christmas.

It’s just around the corner, you know. In less than six weeks, Christmas decorations will be all over the malls, Christmas trees will go up in schools, offices, and a host of other public places, and Christmas carols will be heard on the radio. For many who celebrate Christmas, the feeling will be great, as well it should be. The holiday season will have begun. For Jews, though, the season is more difficult.

At the Christmas season, more than at any other time of year, we find ourselves isolated. We are assaulted by violations of the separation of church and state. Of course, most public manifestations of Christmas don’t break the law. And yet, many of us feel uncomfortable, and more than a little out of place. Our daily lives, and all the places we go every day, from the grocery store, to our schools, to our work places, become filled with symbols of a religion we do not share.

The Christmas season is our most blatant reminder that we are a religious minority in America. And that’s not all bad. Our tradition calls us am kadosh, a holy people, a group that is set apart. Though we dare not hold ourselves aloof from our community, and we must not cast ourselves as superior, we can take pride in our distinctiveness. We gain self-respect, as well as the admiration of our fellow Americans, when we remain true to who we are. Being good Jews, and not celebrating Christmas, are our American Jewish badges of honor.

There are some in our land, though, who claim that America is a Christian nation, or at least that it ought to be. They argue that Christmas trees, and even scenes depicting Jesus’ birth, are secular symbols of our national Christian society. Their claims are a slander against Christianity and a libel against America.

To those who say that the Christmas tree is a secular American symbol, we say “No!” The Christmas tree is a powerful symbol of the cross, the most holy symbol of the Christian religion. The evergreen is said to represent the Christian promise of eternal life through faith in Jesus. The lights decorating the tree stand for Jesus, known to Christians as the light of the world. Christianity is a religion we deeply respect. However, we who do not share Christian faith may not celebrate Christmas, for it is a Christian religious holiday replete with religious Christian customs and rituals.

To those who say that America is a Christian country, we say “No!” Our ancestors came to these shores, seeking religious freedom, just like the Puritans and Pilgrims before them. Our Constitution and its Bill of Rights enshrine our religious liberties, which we will defend at all cost.

To those who propose moments of silence on the slippery slope toward mandatory Christian prayers in public school, accompanying the already omnipresent symbols of Christmas, we again say, most emphatically, “No!” This Jewish community and Jewish communities throughout the land are prepared to fight to preserve the separation of church and state. We will battle to ban any government intrusion of organized religion into our public schools.

All this much needed nay-saying notwithstanding, our response to Christmas must not be entirely and exclusively negative. For one thing, many of us have friends and family members who are Christians. We may want to help them celebrate their holiday, and that is certainly appropriate. Even if we don’t have intimate relationships with individual Christians, they are our fellow Americans, so their customs and observances should be of interest to us. We may attend their worship services and witness their celebrations in order to learn about another religious tradition.

As we do, though, we may discover that we’re missing something. We may even find Judaism lacking. We may conclude that we do not have a holiday that is as wonderful as Christmas. Indeed, we can learn much from Christmas.

Christmas involves a lot of work. Of course, there’s the shopping and the cooking, but we certainly have those. What I’m talking about is the tree, the ornaments, and all those lights. Some of us, no doubt, feel fortunate to be Jewish just so that we don’t have to hassle with all of that. If we do, though, we’re missing the boat. All that work has wonderful results. There is much family togetherness as the Christmas preparations are made. The home is filled with the sights and sounds of the holiday for weeks. Life-long memories are made. Parents can’t imagine failing to give their children the same wonderful Christmas celebrations they once had. One generation is linked to the next, to those who lived before they were born, and to those who will come after.

To be honest, Hanukkah can’t compete, nor should it be expected to. Hanukkah has a powerful message, it has lights, and it takes place around the same time as Christmas. We’ve even thrown in gifts for good measure. And yet, Hanukkah is in reality a minor holiday. It lacks the hard work, not to mention the smells that linger, unless you treasure the odor of grease, left over from frying latkes.

What Judaism needs is a holiday with great religious significance, with powerful symbols that create beautiful sights and scents around the house. It should center on the home, but also enable the congregation to come together in the Synagogue. This holiday should require a significant amount of work. It should bring individuals and families together to spend several hours to create the appropriate special atmosphere. As the work is done, as the festive environment is developed, and finally, as the holiday is celebrated, lasting memories would be created. Children of such households would not imagine failing to do the same for their own children some day.

If Judaism did not have such a holiday, we would need to create it. Fortunately, though, the holiday already exists; the problem is that we just haven’t been observing it as we could. This High Holy Day season, though, is the time for making new commitments, for turning things around. This year, may many among us commit to doing something Jewish that we’ve never done before, in fact, that we never thought we would do and never previously contemplated doing. Let this year, 5756, be the year for a proliferation of sukkot, all over San Antonio.

A sukkah is not an easy thing to build, but nor is it unspeakably difficult. The materials required aren’t free, but they need not be very expensive. Remember, setting up a Christmas tree and stringing the lights isn’t easy or free either, but millions of Americans do it every year. Instructions for building a simple sukkah are available this morning at each entrance to our sanctuary, and the materials for doing so are available at any lumber store. There may be as many variations as there are sukkot, including structures appended to the side of a house, using the house itself as one of the walls. Sukkot may vary in size. Some are small enough to fit on an apartment balcony. Others may be large enough to accommodate several families, though the Mishnah counsels that no sukkah may be more than thirty feet tall. (I don’t suggest trying that, anyway!)

This is a big project, and we don’t have much time. Sukkot begins at sundown on October 8, and the tradition urges us to drive the first nail in our sukkot as soon as we’ve broken our fasts at the end of Yom Kippur. My goals are ambitious. I hope that no less than 100 homes of Temple members that did not previously have sukkot will have them this year. Next year, I hope for 200, and then maybe other congregations in other places will catch on.

As difficult, overwhelming, and arduous as the work may seem, the reward promises to be great. Building the sukkah, and decorating it with branches and leaves and all kinds of fruit and vegetables, will be fun for families and individuals of all ages. Young children can make their own decorations, as simple as paper chains. Others may make more complex arrangements, even stringing lights in the sukkah. Friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish, will come to help you and to learn about this wonderful holiday. Our Christian friends, in particular, may be interested, since Sukkot is described in the Book of Leviticus, in the Bible we share with them. In fact, Sukkot is the basis for our American Thanksgiving holiday. Meals can be eaten in the sukkah; you may even have a sleep-over there. The holiday lasts eight days, so there is plenty of time to enjoy it.

One warning about building a sukkah, directed specifically at those who have children. If you do it this year, your kids will expect you to do it again next year and the year after. Then, when you’re grandparents, you’ll be expected to come and help make your grandchildren’s celebration of sukkot just like your kids remember it. Building a sukkah may be the most important thing you ever do to preserve Jewish continuity in your own family.

All the while, you’ll be observing one of Judaism’s most meaningful religious holidays. In the sukkah, adorned with the lush things that grow from the earth, we celebrate the harvest. For our ancestors, most of whom were farmers, a good crop was essential. Most of us are city people. Yet we, too, can learn from the sukkah that we are indebted to God for everything we have, for all the goodness we are given. The Sukkah reminds us of the importance of sharing that goodness, God’s gift to us, with the less fortunate.

In fact, the Sukkah is a memento of our own historic homelessness. After our ancestors left Egypt, they wandered in the desert, without a permanent home, for forty years. They had to live in sukkot. As a people who were once homeless, our sukkot make us mindful of the downtrodden and destitute in our own society today who are forced to occupy temporary or insufficient dwellings. They do so not because they are celebrating a holiday, but because they have no permanent home. For this reason, we request a special offering to be brought to our Temple Family Sukkot Service. We ask you to bring toilet articles, which we distribute to the homeless through the SAMM Shelter. May our sukkot inspire us to work on behalf of the homeless at this season and throughout the year.

Let 5756 be the year of the sukkah for the members of Temple Beth-El, and may we never again find Judaism lacking, no matter how attractive and meaningful the Christmas tree and other observances of our neighbors’ faith.

Let 5756 be our year of the sukkah, demonstrating our proud commitment to remaining a distinctive, self-respecting people in a land which respects our religious freedom.

Let 5756 be the year of the sukkah in our homes, and may we reap the benefits of our labors. May the scents and scenes of Sukkot be repeated annually, and lovingly remembered for a lifetime.

Let 5756 be the year of the sukkah in San Antonio, and may we wage an important battle for Jewish continuity, soon to be a model for others across our land, helping us to ensure a vibrant Jewish community for generations to come.

Let 5756 be the year of the sukkah in our hearts, and may we be inspired by one of our tradition’s greatest symbols. May the sukkah move us to add meaning to our own Jewish identity, to aid the homeless, to repair and heal our broken world. Amen.