For Congregation Ner Shalom, Submitted in Absentia
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. That’s how the song goes. And I was looking forward to this most wonderful, ecumenical evening that we share each December: the chanting and the chill air and the connection with spirited people representing a range of traditions, whether they were born into them or arrived at them later in life.
I had some things in mind that I had wanted to talk about tonight, having to do with the darkness of Solstice; the long night that is like the end of the world. Because really, when the sunlight gets so short, and shorter every day, how can you be so certain it will ever come back? That certainty is a kind of faith. Based in experience, yes. But not so very different from the faith many of us feel that the light will return when we find ourselves in metaphorical darkness. No wonder it is so important to mark this longest night, and to celebrate it with light. The Christians got it right when they assigned the birth of God-in-human-form to this week. And we get it more or less right with our festival of lights, snuggling as close to Solstice as we can given the limitations of our lunar way of doing things. It is darkness giving way to hope.
This time of year feels like an end; we’ve reflected that in our secular but still ancient calendar. And this year many people are taking literally the endy-ness of it, as we observe the expiration of the Mayan calendar. And I, not knowing when today the end of the world was scheduled to take place, was not entirely certain how much effort to put into a drash.
Still, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. America is on the move, and my mother and I, like thousands of others, find ourselves stranded at an airport instead of at shul with you. The entire US military is on holiday furlough, and they are all sitting in O’Hare Airport’s food court, eating their Manchu-Wok rations as they head home to families scattered across the country.
One such young man was sitting next to us this morning at a communal table. I use the term “man” advisedly. Had he not been in his Navy uniform, I’d have guessed him to be 16 at best. But he seemed curious about us and struck up a little small talk with my mother who, as many of you know, is a small-talk magnet in public places. He is stationed in Hawai’i. He is heading to Connecticut to his father and stepmother. New Haven. Christmas. “Do you celebrate Christmas?” he asked us.
“No, we’re Jewish,” I said. “Our winter holiday is already over. We’re just looking forward to the quiet time.”
“Ah,” he said, looking momentarily at a loss. “When I was little I didn’t care about Christmas. Just about the presents. But then I began appreciating Jesus and would say, ‘Thank you Jesus for being born.’ And now I’ve let Jesus into my life.”
“Ah,” I said, my mind already racing with how to handle where this was obviously going.
“I hope you’ll think about letting Jesus into your life,” he concluded.
“Well,” I said, not wanting to completely dash his innocent hopes for my salvation, “we’ll give it thought. Thanks.” And I began dealing cards to my mother in hopes that our game of double solitaire would neatly sew up the situation. But he continued to chat.
“So where do you live? Where are you going?” he asked.
“Well, my mother lives here in Chicago. I live in California with my husband and children, and she’s coming home with me to visit her grandchildren.” I offered this information because in my experience there’s no better response to the suggestion of letting Jesus into your life than flinging back the revelation of your same-sex marriage. Maybe the blessing of homosexuality could serve, where double solitaire couldn’t, to put an end to this moment of increasingly awkward interfaith relations.
But no such luck. Our sailor continued. “Well, I hope you’ll read some of what Jesus wrote and let him into your life.” And he looked at me eagerly, at the edge of his seat, waiting for my moment of enlightenment.
I was dealing out the next hand now, my oft-persecuted Jewish blood pumping defensively through my veins. I briefly entertained the possibility that this stranger was Elijah the prophet, showing up, as always, in disguise to test my compassion. But then I reasoned that Elijah probably wouldn’t require me to go as far as accepting Jesus as my personal savior as an act of tzedakah. So I made the decision – perhaps not the best one – to address this head on.
“So listen,” I said, “I appreciate how much finding Jesus has meant to you. I’ve read plenty of Jesus’ words myself, and I think he had some fantastic and radical things to say. But I don’t believe he is God or the son of God.” This is where I wish I had said, “I don’t believe he is the child of God any differently than we all are.” Instead I continued, figuring one’s got to learn this at some time or other, “it’s really not polite to push your religious beliefs on others.”
“Well, I’m not trying to force it on you,” he said, “I was just offering this as a suggestion.”
“We’re strangers,” I said. “You don’t know us. You don’t know if we have religion in our lives or how we find meaning. It was fine for you to offer it once, but then you have to stop. I’m happy for you, and I wish you safety and many blessings. But you have to stop now. It's not polite.” (It is perhaps the depth of feeling we have about our spiritual lives, the sensations that are so hard to articulate, and the beliefs that are completely impossible to defend rationally that make us retreat to the position of religious talk being "impolite." It's not impolite really. It's just too difficult.)
He instantly became despondent, worrying that he'd offended us, and I felt like I’d just kicked a puppy. Plus he’s in the Navy and I’d violated our strict American rules of deference and decorum toward service members. I tried to defuse his anxiety and my own prickliness by changing topics and explaining to him how to play double solitaire, all the time worrying that he would now think Jews care more about playing cards than about either salvation or the national defense.
So how do we live in a pluralistic society? Is such a thing possible? How do we make it okay for people to believe different things, and draw meaning from different sources? We shouldn’t have to just shut up, should we? Should I have just shut up? Should he? We should each be able to speak our own truth, with enthusiasm and excitement and somewhere in the middle our words should be able to meet.
But let’s say I have a special investment in how I think God talked to Moses – or Jesus or Mohammad or Joseph Smith for that matter – how do I express my enthusiasm without implying that my way is better? Or worse – if my beliefs dictate that your actions are wrong, how do I stay silent? If I really believe Jesus is the only path to salvation, how do I stand idly by while my neighbor in the food court says, “No, thank you, I’m busy playing cards.” In a worldview in which the darkness could come and swallow us up at any moment, and this time for good, how do I not offer the hand of hope to a stranger?
There is no answer for this. The dilemma holds true whether you’re a born-again Christian, or born-again Muslim, or a born-once-and-for-always Chasid. How do you tone it down when your God tells you you’re right?
And then all of us who choose the pluralistic position – that all these paths have validity, all are sacred – well, don’t we just get a little tired of being thought of as everybody's lost sheep?
How can we all delight in each other’s inspiration, like we do here on this night at Ner Shalom, without anyone having to come out on top?
As I dealt the cards, I explained to my young interlocutor how one plays multiple solitaire. “There are mixed goals,” I told him. “Yes, you want to win, you want to play more cards than anyone else. But you can only do that if everyone has a good game. It’s both competitive and collaborative, and you have to hold both of those intentions as you play. That’s what makes it sometimes confusing and that’s what makes it fun.”
Only now do I realize that the game was conveniently offering itself up in that very moment as a suggestion for how we might live together in this world, even if we have strong beliefs. Of course you must be committed to your own hand; you must have hope for your own hand; that is natural. But the game is more satisfying for you – and everyone – when you can accept the integrity of other players’ hands, and root – even just a little bit – for their success as well.
We’re ready to board now. The terminal is packed. Babies are crying. People are spilling their salads and talking on their cell phones. It is a great cacophony of voices and experiences and outlooks. This is a crowded world, so crowded, and everyone is just trying to get home.
May we all find our paths, whether they’re non-stop flights or circuitous routing from stop to stop. And may a light, of whatever shape or hue, be waiting in the window for us at journey’s end. I wish you all a beautiful Solstice, and joy in all your holidays, and a peaceful Shabbat which is, I think, the most wonderful time of the year. But I’m biased.