The first night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve will both fall on Saturday, Dec. 24. This coincidence of Christmas and Hanukkah is very rare since Hanukkah is calculated on the lunar calendar and Christmas is calculated on the solar calendar.
I think about these connections this year particularly because this is the first Christmas/Hanukkah season since my best friend Father Tom Hartman passed away. We first met in 1987 on one of these rare holiday alignments when Passover and Easter fell on the same day. We met at News 12 Long Island to tape a short interview on the similarities and differences between Passover and Easter. Tommy was beat from a million Masses but his smile was, as always, undimmed. I was irritated since I wanted to get home and my assistant Kay Giamusso had booked me against my will. Anyway, the lovely news anchor hit me with the question right away, “So Rabbi Gellman, what is the difference between Passover and Easter?” I instinctively snapped back, “There are no chocolate bunnies in Passover and there is no horseradish in Easter.” She seemed oddly satisfied with my snarky response. Tommy could not stop laughing.
After two more hours talking in the parking lot, we were already way down the road to becoming best friends. That is when my life changed in a moment — when Tommy became the messenger and deliverer of the strangest and most powerful miracle I have ever encountered. I rarely speak of this miracle. I don’t think that I have ever written about it in full in this column, but in Tommy’s memory and in honor of the coincidence of two holy days that celebrate much greater miracles than mine, I have chosen to tell it now as my Hanukkah Christmas present.
I pray every day, but I never test God in my prayers. I mostly just say thank you to God and then I shut up and try to listen. However, the day before the news interview I asked God for a sign. I was being offered a big job in a big synagogue in Florida and for some strange reason I could not pull the trigger and accept their kind offer. So I prayed, “God I will serve you with my life but I am not exactly sure about the address. Please send me a sign if you want me to serve you in Florida, where I can teach in a Jewish school and have a golf membership.” (I had to put in the part about the golf membership or God would not have known it was me).
The next day was the news taping and in the parking lot afterward I told Tommy, “You seem like a great guy and I would love to hang out with you, but that is not going to happen. I am going home and calling a synagogue in Florida to accept a job as their rabbi.” Tommy said nothing for a while and then said, “You are not going to Florida.” I said, “Oh really! Do you normally intrude on someone’s major life decisions whom you have known for less than two hours?” He said, “No, never. But last night I had a dream in which God came to me and said, ‘Tomorrow you are going to meet someone. Tell him, I’m not through with you here.’ ”
I asked Tommy if God had ever spoken to him in any other dream and he said it had never happened and it freaked him out. I told him that it was definitely freaking me out, but I knew I had just received my sign. So I called the people in Florida right then and there and told them that I had decided not to come to Florida to be their rabbi. They asked why and I said, “Because an angel from God just came to me and told me that God was not through with me here.” They said, “Thank God you turned us down, because rabbi, you need psychiatric help right away.”
They may have been right, but after I hung up I looked at Tommy and said, “What now?” He said, “You know how there are lawyers reporting legal news on TV and there are doctors reporting medical news. Well, there are no clergy reporting religious news. Let’s do that.” I said, “We can call ourselves ‘The God Squad.’ ” Tommy could not stop laughing until the day last February when God kissed him on the lips and took his breath away.
We read in the New Testament, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2)
With Tommy, I was always aware.
May this be a season of miracles for us, one and all.