Parashat Vayechi 5776
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parashat Vayechi 5776

If you live in America and are not closed off to the world it’s hard not to note that this is the week that our “majority culture,” our neighbors and friends celebrate Christmas.

Certainly we can feel it in the air and on the air waves. The commercialization of Christmas makes it the focus of all the advertising we see. And, of course, there are the lights…ahhh the lights. Even the crustiest amongst us has to admit that they have some appeal. Have you noticed that in the centralized Jewish areas here, like the place of the kosher restaurants there are big palm trees with lights that are white and blue? They do have a particular charm…

But I know that our feelings at this time of year have not always been warm. I remember, as a child going to public schools, the tension surrounding the singing of Christmas carols or participation in Christmas pageants. They made us feel truly like outsiders…and even if we enjoyed the music, there was a sense that we were committing some act of apostasy when we would say something like “round yon virgin”…So we would mouth the words, or look for where the bolt of lightning might come from.

But there was another concern beyond religious fidelity also was a concern for the infringement of religion in the public sphere. And so with our organizations civil liberty groups, we would lead the fight against crèches, nativity scenes and the infringement of religion in the public sphere.

But there was something that has happened in the last few decades. And that has to do with profound changes in Christianity. Deep soul searching, particularly after the Shoah has lead to a church that no longer views the Jew as fodder for conversion. We know that through much of our history many Christians and Christian teaching indicated a desire to either convert us or worse, kill us.

I read a beautiful piece from Time magazine by my colleague and leading rabbi in America, David Wolpe. Did you see it?

David wrote about his teacher Elieser Slomovic who grew up in Solotvina, on the Ukraine-Romanian border. He and his community experienced the horrors of World War II, and much of his family was lost in the camps. After the war he came to Los Angeles, where he taught rabbinic literature at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University). In his first months he was asked to attend a Christian-Jewish interfaith conference. Having never heard of such a thing, and being fundamentally distrustful of Christians, he refused. But he was strongly encouraged, and since he was both new to the country and the university, he reluctantly agreed.

Wolpe wrote, I vividly recall Professor Slomovic telling me of his experience. He traveled to Northern California full of apprehension. The proceedings opened with a meal involving all the clergy and scholars, and he took his place in a far corner, trying to be inconspicuous. The minister who was leading the conference raised a piece of bread to begin and said: “I would like to start this meal the way our Lord Jesus would have done: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, Hamotzi lechem min haaretz. (Blessed are you O Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.)” Elieser got tears in his eyes. That a Christian would pay tribute to Jesus’ Jewish origins and begin with a Hebrew blessing was something he never thought to hear in his lifetime. America really was different.”

The world is different, and Christianity is different. Even as we bemoan the history we must be grateful for the changes that have made our world one in which Christianity and Judaism coexist in common devotion to ideals of freedom and mutual respect.

I went to a Catholic funeral two years ago and the Priest taught about and led the community in the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish.

Wolpe went on; The Vatican recently declared that the church should not seek to convert Jews. For most of the history of the church, a Pope who would visit synagogues, pray together with rabbis, or have close friendship with Jews across the world would be unthinkable. Strong Christian support for Israel exists across the board in the U.S. and particularly in the evangelical community, and demographic studies show that Jews are the most admired religious group in the U.S. Anyone familiar with history can only be astonished and grateful at the change.

Past generations would not have believed this to be the case. And I believe there are profound lessons in it for us…
And one of that we have to be careful. We not only don’t want to be labelled and trusted unfairly as “the other”…We have that responsibility for others.

I have been and continue to be proudly engaged in interfaith dialogue work. And that work is not only about cumbaya language that speaks to our similarities…it’s also about recognizing difference and learning to live with it.

Two Sundays ago, I was at St. Gregory’s Church in celebration of their 62nd anniversary. When I was welcomed by my colleague in this work, Father Andrew Sherman, the church in recognition of our work and my presence there gave me a resounding applause. And this isn’t only about Jewish Christian relations. This is about relationships with all others…certainly including the Muslim community.

I had a Christmas experience this week. You know we are deeply involved in a program called Family Promise; a project that shelters homeless families (Special thanks to Mark Wasserman). This week it is difficult to find volunteers from the Christian community to staff the meals and welcome the homeless. So Jews do this…and also Muslim. On Wednesday night a few members of our congregation (Jack and Mindy Rosenzweig and Mark and myself) were there, preparing food and serving and sitting with a family and children with the leader of the ICBR (Islamic Center of Boca Raton) a teacher of French and Arabic, a young Muslim law student, and another young Muslim man in the hospitality industry…and we shared stories, and talked politics, and spoke about Israel (yes) and Moroccans and Moroccan Jews, spoke about experiences of immigration and responsibility and America…and talked about Trump…It was a wonderful evening. It was truly engaging. I was invited to speak at the local Islamic High School.

And I realized, how I myself, I generalize and create guilt by association…and how important the dialogue and the engagement is. The world isn’t what we see on the news. And the world is not what it was. Neither ISIS not fear mongers will create my world view. We can create our world. We have to be out in the world. We have to engage the world. And we can create hope.

This Christmas, our members helped in police stations and fire houses, and soup kitchens and shelters.

And you know that these activities are not the things that are done to replace Jewish living…but can be, and perhaps should be a part of our Jewish lives as they are lived out in America. Because when we shrink in our vision, we will endanger ourselves. When we build walls, we create fear.

Let me share a story…a beautiful story. It is a Jewish Christmas story and it was published in TABLET this past week. It was written by Robert Rand:

Here’s this lovely story…

In 1963, in Skokie Illinois, there was a seven year old boy, a Jewish kid named Robbie. Robbie met Suzie Louise Anderson in second grade. She was the prettiest girl he had ever seen; flowing blonde hair and blue eyes. They became friends and really enjoyed each other’s company. They liked playing ball and jacks and going for walks. They particularly liked playing with Suzie’s horse Buster.

There were people in Robby’s family that joked about Robbie and the little “shikse”, they said. But Robbie’s Zeide, a frum Jew, said, she’s a cute little goy…what’s the problem?

They not only shared in the fun things they liked to do, but as Robbie got older he realized that some of the very things that made them different were quite appealing to him.
He never had cucumber sandwiches before he met Suzie. And he never thought you could have bologna on white bread with butter…The first time he sleep at Suzie’s house he woke up to a breakfast of glazed doughnuts. He liked that about Suzie’s family.

Christmas time, the Anderson’s invited Robbie to their house and they even had him make an ornament with a Jewish star and Robbie’s name.

One summer Robbie was invited for a long weekend to Suzie’s cousin’s farm in Wisconsin. There he did things that Jewish boy from Skokie could only have dreamed about…he rode horses, milked a cow, churned butter. He ate chutney and collard greens and corn bread…all for the first time and played with their pet pig. Robbie remembers how smart the pig was; they trained the pig to get the newspaper. He wondered why he always heard that they were shmutzik!

On Sunday the family asked him if he wanted to go to church. He thought it would be interesting and he knew his religious grandfather would have lots to talk to him about. So he went. He was fascinated by the candles and the incense and loved the singing. He reported that he even ate the wafer and drank the wine…and later he learned it was the body and blood of Jesus. He said it made him feel very queasy but he didn’t throw up.

So here’s where the story gets interesting.

One day in December, shortly before Christmas, Suzie asks Robbie: why did your people kill Jesus, why did you take him away? And she seemed like a different girl to him.

He went home and saw the headlines in The Skokie Life Newspaper:
Jesus Snatched!
Crist Looms!
And Robbie wondered what was this about?

Here’s the background. There was a battle in city hall about placing a crèche on the green in front of the court house. Jewish leaders in the community fought a hard battle but lost. The nativity scene was placed there, but a few days before Christmas someone stole baby Jesus!

This upset everybody…and Robbie decided he wanted to get to the bottom of it.

He learned from Suzie about the anger of the Christian friends of her parents. They suspected it was a Jew because of the opposition to the nativity scene. And she asked him, Is it true you killed Jesus? Did Jews steal baby Jesus?

So Robbie brought Shloimi, the rabbi’s son, Meryl, who spoke Yiddish and Gabe who was the biggest Jewish kid he knew and they went door to door knocking on the doors of Jewish homes looking for baby Jesus.The young Jewish kids never found Jesus. The story ends with Robbie learning that Suzie’s family was moving to the farm in Wisconsin…and one final scene…

Robbie goes to visit Suzie one last time. It’s Christmas Eve and the young Jewish boy and Suzie look at each other through the window. And Robbie sings to her…

Silent night
Holy night.
All is calm
All is bright

And they wave goodbye, knowing this was the end of their friendship as Suzie moved away…

And one last scene…Robbie tells his grandfather what he did…searching for baby Jesus and singing the Carol to Suzie…What do you think Zeide?

And Zeide answers: you performed the greatest mitzvah…you did to someone else that which you would want them to do to you…

I talk to you today about Christmas and Christianity and our role in a community and bring you a sweet story…

I do it as your rabbi.

I do it on Shabbat. I do it with every expectation that we will keep Jewish life alive…because we can bring so much to this world. But I also do it with a knowledge that we live in a bigger world and we are not alone. And this world that can be filled with so much hatred and resentment needs to have the light that brings people together in respect and honor and friendship and kindness.

And it all starts with the individual. And the communities we build.

Zeide was right.

So as we complete the book of Genesis we see that Jacob blessed his children…ish asher k’birchato
Each one with a blessing appropriate for him.
It is our father, Jacob’s recognition that we live in a world of difference and diversity. Our job is to affirm who we are and what we do…and respect those who are different then ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom