Friday, November 22, 2013

Intersecting Holidays

Intersecting Holidays
From the Heart
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Normally Hanukkah and Christmas are juxtaposed by the secular and Jewish calendars. Christmas is a central holiday for Christianity and Hanukkah is considered of the minor Jewish holidays, not recorded in the Bible and only minimally mentioned in the Talmud. These two holidays are theological opposites, one celebrating the birth of the central figure of the faith and the other commemorating the fight to preserve Judaism. Why is this year different from every other year?

The answer is found in the intricacy of the Jewish calendar being a hybrid of a lunar calendar adjusted to the solar calendar. The holidays must occur in their proper seasons. Just imagine Passover in December and Rosh HaShanah in July! Can’t happen! The Jewish calendar is designed to keep order. Yet this year we celebrated the extraordinary event of Hanukkah juxtaposed to Thanksgiving. It won’t occur again for many millennia.

Long discourses could be written on the origin of Thanksgiving, debunking some of its myths. We know that the early settlers to this continent, illegal aliens to the Native Americans, would shortly dispossess those who had helped save their lives. We have created self-serving mythology. Yet the need to be thankful and express it is rooted in the Torah with the holy day of Sukkot and the bringing of the First Fruits to the Temple. More important than the sales and football games is the need to acknowledge that we have been blessed to have what we have. Furthermore, if we are really truthful with ourselves, we need to act upon the knowledge that not all people have been blessed like we have been. We need to be a blessing to others. Our sacred liturgy compels us to assist all others in need, the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow, in Biblical language, to rise from their poverty and enjoy the same level of blessings that we do. I am glad that our Biblical teachings are the foundation of the thoroughly American holiday. Our Judaism and our American heritage are complementary one to another.

Hanukkah must be understood accurately to have its authentic power. It was not a fight for “religious freedom.” It was war by the Jews against the onslaught of Hellenism, culture and religion, to be Jews faithful to God and Torah. In the beginning it was civil war among the Jews themselves, those who would be faithful and those who abandon it. The struggle began with a small number, a faint light in the Judean mountains and would last for decades. The liberation of Jerusalem and the rededication of its Temple were temporary. Yet because of the Maccabees Judaism would survive, thrive and triumph while the Greek and Roman empires would crumble. Hanukkah is a distinctive holiday for the Jewish people. It is a specific narrative of the Jews would who fight even to the death to preserve the faith. It is a very different holiday than Thanksgiving.

I am proud to observe both holidays, as a Jew and as an American. Their juxtaposition gives me pause to realize how blessed I am, we are, to have such a personal richness. But I do not combine the two. One expresses a general thanks for what we have. The other celebrates our existence and our purpose as Jews. I hope that you enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving. From our far-flung family to yours we wish a happy and meaningful Hanukkah.

Chag Sameach!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Admat Kodesh – Holy Ground – Sinai and Richmond

Admat Kodesh – Holy Ground – Sinai and Richmond
November 15th, 2013
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

While Moses is tending his father-in-law’s, Jethro’s, flock, he sees a strange sight in the distance and goes towards the bush that is burning yet not consumed.  From that bush God speaks to Moses and says: “Remove your shoes from upon your feet because the ground you are standing on is ‘admat kodesh’ – holy ground.”

What makes ordinary soil ‘holy’?
To answer that question I really need to define the word holy.
Then we need to deal with the implications of that definition.

Clearly in the Torah God specifies that the precise soil where He and Moses meet has transcendent meaning because it is the meeting place between man and God. The planet has inherent kedoshah, holiness, because it is God’s creation and thus we have certain obligations to take care of it. Yet this exact spot is holy because here Moses meets God, the ultimate human experience. But it was not just a tête-à-tête. Moses will leave this meeting under Divine command to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery to freedom and into national existence.” Holiness indicates something that is ultimate, above and beyond all else has happened here. Indeed, Moses was standing on admat kodesh, holy ground.

As best as I can discern, everywhere else in the Bible, human beings declare ‘holy ground.’ When Jacob sleeps at the place he will call Beth El, he proclaims that God was in that place and makes it special by pouring oil on its stones. After the Tabernacle is built in the wilderness of Sinai, every time and every place it is erected, the specific place for the Ark with the Ten Commandments is chosen by Moses and Aaron. Solomon will build the First Temple on the mountain top and this meeting place for God and Israel becomes holy forever. Each of these places has transcendent meaning. It never loses its holiness. It is holy, sacred, sanctified – forever and ever.

This is a critical concept:  transcendent meaning  caused by a transcendent event can change the status of otherwise mundane soil.

Death does this too.

A cemetery is admat kodesh, holy ground. It obtains this status because our human body, created in God’s image is, after God Himself, the holiest thing in existence. Our body is holier than the Torah. When buried in ordinary soil, it changes its status to admat kodesh, holy ground, and imbues that status to the entire area, even where no one is buried. That changes our behavior. We don’t eat on a cemetery. We don’t play music – except for military honors – on a cemetery. And we are not supposed to walk on graves, a difficult task in cemeteries without distinct demarcations.  Death, as well as birth, is a transcendent event for us and for God. It is the ultimate event in human existence, for, in traditional Jewish belief, it marks the transition of the soul’s existence from this world to the-world-to-come and life everlasting.

Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor and all the named and unnamed places of the genocide of our people is holy ground. I say that not because of the horrors that occurred there but rather because death has ultimate meaning and thus ultimate power. Death sanctifies the soil. Besides all else that can be rightfully said, the death of our people in those places was testimony to the eternality of the Jewish people to triumph over that evil. Those places are admat kodesh because our people there maintained their dignity, their Jewishness, their honor, their humanity and in death triumphed over evil. Their suffering and their humanity made ordinary blood-soaked and blood-stained soil admat kodesh, holy ground.

And you don’t play baseball on admat kodesh.

We do not have proprietary rights over suffering because of the Holocaust.
We do have a deeper empathy and sensitivity to suffering because of the Holocaust.
We do not own the word “slavery” because of Egyptian bondage.
We gave the world the belief in “equality” - that no person will be a master and none a slave.

Admat kodesh, holy ground is not just on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or wherever was the Burning Bush.
Admat kodesh, holy ground is not just where our dead our buried, but wherever anyone is buried.
Admat kodesh, holy ground is not just where our people have suffered, but wherever other people have suffered, too.

If God could hear the groans of the Israelites in Egypt, then He could hear those of the African-Americans in Richmond, Virginia.

You don’t play baseball at Arlington National Cemetery.
You don’t play baseball at Auschwitz.

And maybe they shouldn’t play baseball at Shockoe Bottom either.

Shabbat Shalom.