Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing

VAYIGASH 5778

VAYIGASH 5778

[Sing] “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” We’re only 2 days away. Yes, you heard me correctly. This rabbi has no trouble speaking about Christmas. It’s all around us and more and more people today are saying, “Merry Christmas,” instead of the generic “Happy Holidays.”

I was visiting someone at St. Joseph hospital the other day when I ran into a woman in the elevator. She looked at me and said, “I see from that little beanie on your head that you’re probably a rabbi.”

“I confess,” I answered—not sure if I wanted to start up a conversation with her.

She continued, “Are you one of those rabbis who doesn’t shake hands with women?” I responded that I’m not that Orthodox. She shook my hand and wished me a Happy Hanukkah.

She then asked me, “Where are those strings that rabbis wear?”

She was speaking of the tzitzis many orthodox Jews wear outside their shirt. I didn’t want to get into a discussion of Jewish ritual with her, so I answered, “It’s my custom to wear them tucked in to my shirt and pants.”

She then went on: “I had the most wonderful rabbi who died.”

Now this woman did not look at all Jewish so I asked her, “Who was your rabbi?

She responded proudly, “My rabbi was Jesus Christ.”

I simply said, “Yes, Jesus was an observant Jew.”

She completely ignored my comment and said, “Did you know that his mother and father were both Jewish. And did you know that he was a rabbi.”

I didn’t want to tell her that the term “rabbi” was not invented until a couple of centuries after Jesus.

Finally, she wished me a Merry Christmas, and I wished her a Merry Christmas back. She handed me a packaged Christmas cookie from a bag of such cookies she was probably distributing to patients and walked away. I noticed the cellophane wrapper on this Christmas treat had an O-U on it, so I ate it. And I thought to myself: we live in a strange world where Christmas cookies and chocolate Easter bunnies are marked kosher!

Yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. I appreciate its deep emotional and spiritual meaning to the Christians I know. I love the lights, the music and especially the good cheer. Sometimes I’ll be asked why I don’t celebrate Christmas. Not wanting to come across as a Scrooge or the Grinch, I simply reply, “It’s not my holiday.” Perhaps I’ll go out for kosher Chinese food, however—which is the Jewish Christmas custom.

Let’s give Christmas a deeper look. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, who Christians believe died for our sins. Christians believe that the birth of Jesus hearkens the beginning of our rescue from sin. To quote the popular carol: Gd bless ye merry gentleman let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas Day. To save us all from Satan’s power when we have gone astray. With tidings of comfort and joy. The song is lovely, but Jews have a different vision of how we are saved from sin.

If you look closely you’ll see that there’s something missing in the 1st 9 Torah readings. In the opening pages of the Torah Adam and Eve sin, disobeying Gd’s warning not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and so they’re thrown out of the garden. What is missing in this story? ... There’s no mention of either Adam or Eve confessing or repenting. And there’s no mention of Gd forgiving. Isn’t this strange? Wouldn’t you think that Gd would have given them a 2nd chance because they had only just been created and no one had ever sinned before? Wouldn’t you think that Gd would forgive them? Is Hashem not a forgiving Gd?

Right after that Cain kills Abel and Gd punishes him with exile. Although Cain does say his sin is more than he can bear, he doesn’t repent, and there’s no mention of Gd forgiving him. We might expect Gd to forgive Cain because no one had ever murdered before. How was Cain to know that his brother would die if he hit him hard? But Gd does not forgive.

Soon everyone but Noah sins and so Gd wipes out every living thing with a great flood, saving Noah and his family in the Ark—and no one else. But why doesn’t Gd forgive the generation of the flood and give them a 2nd chance?

Moving ahead, the people of Sodom sin and Gd wipes them out as well. He grants Abraham’s plea to save the city if there are some righteous people in it, but He does not forgive the people, and doesn’t give them a 2nd chance.

And then we come to today’s parsha. Joseph’s brothers—who had sinned against him by selling him into slavery—appear before him. He can arrest them, imprison them, torture them or do whatever he wants to them. And what does Joseph do? He forgives them!

He forgives them even though they beat him up, and threw him into a pit, left him there to die and then sold him as a slave. He says to them (Gen. 44:5): “Now don’t be distressed or be too hard on yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to save lives that Gd sent me ahead of you.” He forgives them, sends them home loaded down with food, and tells them to bring their father back with them as quickly as they can. This is the 1st example of forgiveness in the Bible!

Later, when father Jacob dies, the brothers are afraid that now Joseph will wreak vengeance upon them, so he reassures them (Gen. 50:20): “Although you intended me harm, Gd intended it for good.” On this note of forgiveness the book of Genesis ends.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks—the former Chief Rabbi of the UK—asks: Why does Joseph’s act of forgiveness appear before any other act of forgiveness by Gd in the Bible? It’s because Gd does not forgive us until we forgive each other. If Gd had forgiven human beings 1st, it would have made them worse, not better.  People would have said to themselves: “Why should I not do harm to others? What is the risk? What is the danger? After all, Gd forgives.”

So we Jews believe that we are forgiven and saved from sin, not by the death of Jesus, but by forgiving each other. Why didn’t Joseph forgive his brothers when he 1st saw them again? Why did he wait till they came back to Egypt a 2nd time and he had Benjamin arrested for stealing his silver goblet threatening him to a life of slavery?

He wanted to see if they had changed. Indeed, Judah, who had suggested selling Joseph into slavery, now pleads with him when Benjamin is arrested to take him instead. Joseph can clearly see that Judah and the brothers have changed. The story teaches that we are rescued from sin by changing our ways. We call this teshuva—a return to the proper path. We don’t need someone to die for our sins. We become at one with Gd when we change our ways and act Gdly.

“[Sing] It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” and so I wish my Christian neighbors and friends—including many who will read this sermon—a Merry Christmas. Please enjoy your holiday, but realize that it’s not mine. Jews look to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a time to return to the proper path, to forgive each other and find forgiveness in Gd’s eyes. In fact, as our prayers teach us, we don’t have to wait for the High Holy days, we can do it now and every day. Amen!

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