Sleigh bells ring — are you listening? Or, like me, are you trying very hard not to?
Once again, we are reaching the season to be jolly — provided, of course, that we are part of the majority population, which we are not, despite appearances.
Of course, we really do not need this season to reaffirm that fact. Throughout the year, there are constant reminders in northern New Jersey that we are a tolerated minority, at best. This is especially true in Bergen County, where the "Sabbath" is Sunday; the county government makes that clear by forcing us to pay dearly for believing otherwise. Think about all of the "Saturday only" sales that Shabbat-observant cannot avail themselves of because Bergen County is shut down on Sundays. (Most "Saturday only" sales are "Saturday and Sunday only" everywhere else.)
This season, though, is unique. Even in the most enlightened communities anywhere in the United States, there is no way for a Jew to feel completely comfortable at this time. The endless series of radio and TV commercials, holiday-themed plots on our favorite shows, holiday-themed music on our favorite radio stations, and holiday-themed displays along our main streets and shopping malls are all designed to create warm and fuzzy feelings, but no Jew, no matter how assimilated, can escape the feeling at some point that he or she is a stranger at someone else’s party.
For some of us, of course, the solution seems to be "to go with the flow." Thus, for example, we may let our children go trick-or-treating on Halloween, which is as much a Christian holiday as the All Saint’s Day it leads into. On Chanukah, we buy our children expensive presents, in obvious emulation of the proximate Christian observance (and in direct contradiction of the spirit of "Chanukah gelt," which is meant to teach children the concept of tzedakah). And we erect giant chanukiot in front of our town municipal buildings or in local parks, to compete with other holiday displays, as if Chanukah were an equivalent observance. (Chanukah is and always has been a "minor" festival meant to be observed mainly in the home.)
For the record, there is only one place on the entire planet where a giant Chanukah menorah makes sense, and that is in the State of Israel, in front of the Knesset, where it stands as a symbol of Jewish sovereignty of Jewish land. Anywhere else, it represents a Christmas tree without leaves.
And then, saddest of all, there is the abomination known as the "Chanukah bush." According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, slightly over one in every five Jews in America goes so far as to have one in his or her home, completely oblivious to the true symbolism of that display and to the fact that to kill a tree for no good and practical reason is forbidden by Jewish law.
The desire not to feel different and apart is simply too strong for many of us to resist.
Well, there are other things that we can do during this season (other than simply taking pride in who and what we are, which should be sufficient) that, while they may not make us feel any less uncomfortable about the displays, can give us warm feelings about ourselves and bring credit to our communities and our people.
For example, we can all graciously accept those treife turkeys that some supermarkets hand out free at this time of year to those customers whose purchases reach a certain amount. Instead of eating these turkeys, though, donate them to one of the organizations in the area that distribute food to the poor. Better still, make this a project of your synagogue or community center, and drop off a truckload of treife turkeys.
And then there are our seldom-used coats. A good many of us have at least one or two hanging around. Put them to use by giving them away. It is a decidedly Jewish thing to do at this time of year. From both the Torah and the Prophets, the message is the same: Don’t let the poor go without adequate clothing for the winter.
For example, Exodus ”:’5-‘6 states: "If you take your neighbor’s garment as a pledge, you shall deliver it to him by sundown. For that is his only covering [against the cold]…." In its restatement of this commandment, Deuteronomy ‘4:1’-13 adds, "and it shall be righteousness to you before the Lord your God."
Now, while this refers to a pledge only, meaning something taken as security for a loan, the meaning is plain: The poor need to be properly protected against the cold. If a poor person gives you a garment as a pledge, then it is safe to assume it is his or her best — and warmest — garment, and that person thus is no longer protected from the cold. If you must return it each night when the sun goes down, even though it is lawfully yours, then how much more so are you required to see to it that all the poor in your community are adequately protected from the cold?
The Prophets leave no room for doubt about the intent of this commandment. Both Ezekiel and Isaiah, in fact, make direct reference to it, in God’s Name. Thus, Ezekiel in Chapter 18 states that to do "that which is lawful and right" in God’s eyes requires "[restoring] to the debtor his pledge" and "[covering] the naked with a garment." In Chapter 58, Isaiah states that one of the requirements for a truly righteous life is, "When you see the naked, that you cover him…."
We are Ahm Yisrael, the Nation Israel, the Jewish people. We are not a religious community (although religion is an essential part of our identity), but a unique entity assembled by God for a stated purpose. We are His messenger to the world at large, His "mamlechet kohanim v’goi kadosh — [His] kingdom of priests and holy nation," here to teach by personal example how God expects humankind to exist with one another.
There can be no better way to survive a season when we are made to feel like outsiders than by demonstrating to everyone that God expects us all to act as if we are part of the same family.