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God Squad: What the rabbi loves about Christmas

One of the oldest traditions Father Tom Hartman and I observed in the many years we did this column together was to write two holiday columns in December.

In one, Tommy would tell what he loved about Hanukkah and I would tell what I loved about Christmas. With his passing from this world to the world to come, the Hanukkah column he wrote is gone. Basically, he loved the lights of the menorah because they reminded him of Christmas tree lights. He loved latkes, the potato pancakes eaten on Hanukkah. He ate them with applesauce at our home and could not understand why I ate them with sour cream. I explained that my ancestors, who were from Russia, had sour cream left over after making borscht.

He loved the family gathering and the dreidels, the little tops with Hebrew letters on the four sides that remind us "A great miracle happened there." Like me, Tommy was worried about the commercialization of Hanukkah and Christmas and its corrosive effect on the spiritual meaning of the holidays.

I explained to Tommy that Hanukkah was really a minor Jewish holiday. The Book of Maccabees was not even included in the Hebrew Bible, but being in such close juxtaposition to Christmas, Hanukkah inevitably, but sadly, became Christianized. I used to have kids ask me in the synagogue if it was OK to have a Hanukkah bush. I told them that it was not OK in the nicest way possible, but the kids were not pleased. The Hanukkah/Christmas competition is unfair and unbalanced.

In the springtime, the Passover/Easter competition is much fairer. The two major holidays are connected (the Last Supper was a Passover meal), each teaching the message of redemption from sin and the freedom that comes with taking God into your life.

All this leaves me with the joyous task of telling you what I love about Christmas. I love, above all, the message, also at the heart of Hanukkah, that miracles are real. Things happen for a cause, but sometimes that cause comes from God and there is no rational way to fully explain it. Miracles are not necessarily a violation of natural law, although some are. Miracles can be natural events that arrive at such an opportune time that they forever change our spiritual, physical and historical landscape. I want you to consider, dear readers, that we are living in the midst of a miracle: the development of a vaccine against the COVID-19 virus that promises to finally bring the world out of this deep tunnel of sacrifice, suffering and death.

While it is true that we have vaccines against other viruses — like smallpox, polio, Ebola and against measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, chickenpox, polio, hepatitis A and B, rotavirus, pneumococcus, haemophilus influenzae and meningococcal disease — vaccines against such diseases as malaria and HIV have eluded doctors and scientists. Some vaccines, like the annual flu vaccine, are not 100% effective. Additionally, the development of all these vaccines took years of research to bear fruit.

However, now, just when we need it the most, after barely four months of research, we have vaccines coming to us with more than 90% efficacy. This is not just good luck. Luck is not a strong enough word to express our gratitude and amazement at this unprecedented achievement. I say that these vaccines are miracles. They are such good news that they change everything from utterly bleak to utterly hopeful.

I have no desire and no need to rank this miracle against the Jewish miracle of the Hanukkah oil that lasted eight days or the Christian miracle of the birth of a savior in Bethlehem. Miracles are not amenable to ranking. The point is that sometimes, when we least expect it, things happen that give life and hope a new birthing. In the midst of this season of miracles, let us not commit the unpardonable sin of overlooking the miracle that is about to save our lives.

Merry Christmas to come for all my dear Christian readers.

More on betrayal

On the best possible spiritual reaction to betrayal, E. from Lake Worth, Florida, had some deep thoughts:

"I think it seems so hard to forgive because we want to make it right, or we want revenge or at least circumstances to 'clear' or justify us. What helps me most is to remember that all judgment, and retribution, belongs to God alone. I am His and He's got this. Whatever the offense or betrayal, I am not responsible for the outcome. I can leave it with God who judges and rewards faithfully … in this life or the next. This is truly most freeing!"

SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at godsquadquestion@aol.com or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.

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