What follows is my brief message from December 24th Shabbat evening services.
Merry Christmas. I recognize that this is a surprising statement to hear at Shabbat services, but it is my wish for our Christian neighbors and friends. This evening of course marks Erev Christmas, Christmas Eve. And I very much like wishing my Christian friends a heartfelt Merry Christmas. I don’t very much like the bland and nondescript Happy Holidays. I prefer that we know the greeting that evokes meaning to our friends and is most authentic to their faith. Knowing what is important to our neighbors is a significant quest.
This week we read the opening chapters in the Book of Exodus. Our stay in Egypt, which began with Joseph and his brothers, turns ugly and turns into the slavery that we retell at our Passover seders. There is one reason why a new Pharaoh enslaves us. It is because he forgets. His failure to remember all the good Joseph and his descendants did for prior generations of Egyptians is what makes him grow afraid of the Israelites. It is his forgetting that leads to our suffering. The Torah states: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”
Knowing what matters to our neighbors, to those among whom we live, makes all the difference in the world. Knowledge suggests intimacy. It means knowing what your friends like and dislike. It means knowing what is important to your neighbors. It means knowing what they believe and having enough confidence in our faith, and our Jewish holidays, to wish our friends on this evening, a holiday filled with Christian meaning.
And while Happy Holidays is the invention of those who do not wish to offend, or those who wish to place Christmas in the same box as New Years, Merry Christmas is a greeting that matters to those who believe in Christianity and who find Christmas deeply meaningful.
While many of our friends, and neighbors, are Christian more and more are Muslim or Hindu or Chinese and so that means learning how to say, Ramadan Mubarak—a blessed Ramadan or Happy Diwali or Happy Chinese New Year. Ramadan begins on April 2 by the way, and the Chinese New Year the beginning of February. Diwali was last month so you will have to save up that greeting for next year. We should promise ourselves that we can do better and need to learn even more meaningful greetings.
Let’s be honest. All these greetings are somewhat cursory and do not really show that I know much about my neighbor’s holidays, especially those whose faith lies in Eastern traditions, but I want to know, and I really want to learn much more. Because knowing suggests friendship. Knowing means true neighborliness. Knowing leads to salvation.
After Pharaoh’s fears grows and he set taskmasters over the Israelites to oppress them, they cried out in pain. God hears their groans. The Torah reports: “God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” These last words, “va-yei-dah Elohim,” should be translated differently. It does not say, God took notice, but instead “And God knows.”
Knowing can really save us. So Merry Christmas. Ramadan Mubarak, Happy Diwali. Happy Chinese New Year. And most important of all, Shabbat Shalom. Because even the simplest of greetings can lead to shalom, peace.