Parashat Shemot 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת שְׁמוֹת
Torah Portion: Exodus 1:1-6:1
This year Shabbat Parashat Shemot falls on Christmas, a holiday that is not for or by the Jewish people, but one which we Jews in America observe in one of two ways: 1) as dispassionate observers, the way we might glance at merchandise in a store window while walking down the street without breaking stride. We see what’s there but don’t think about it much, if at all. Or 2) as interested, maybe even engaged observers, who stop and look at the merchandise, perhaps entering the store to get a closer look, maybe try it on, maybe even buy it and take it home! Either way, we are as dispassionate observers or interested consumers, we are still pedestrians relating to something that is not ours as we make our way through the world.
In our own community, we each relate to Christmas in our own way. Some don’t pay much attention. Some feel put upon by all the commercial trappings of the holiday. Yet some are uplifted by the joy of the season and are moved to participate in its festivities, perhaps as supportive, caring family members of people for whom Christmas carries great meaning. At most, we are resident aliens, paying deep respect for the tradition of our majority culture. We are sojourners with those who celebrate Christmas.
In many ways, our experience as Jews during this season is an extension of the experience of our ancestors that we begin to read about in Parashat Shemot this week. In Egypt we were outsiders, oppressed for four hundred years following the death of Joseph and the rise of a Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph. Then we left Egypt and commenced 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, heading toward an unfamiliar destination. Eventually, we became a sovereign nation and would one day again, but for most of history, we were strangers in someone else’s lands. Even with the birth of the Jewish State in 1948, most of us have chosen to reside outside of our homeland. Maybe we are in a constant state of exile, or maybe we have come to call the place where we are “home.” In reality, these two possibilities are always present, always tugging at us, never letting us become too comfortable or complacent but also never letting us feel entirely rootless and out of place, either. That’s how it is today, and that’s how it has been for centuries.
As resident aliens and sojourners in Europe between the 16th and 19th centuries, our ancestors had their own response to Christmas. In the 17th century, they named it “Nittel Nacht” – the Night of the Nativity, but beginning with the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century, they had already begun to refrain from studying Torah on Christmas eve. They also refrained from having sex, and they ate lots of garlic. In the beginning, they were doing what their Christian neighbors were doing, but for different reasons. Christians were getting rowdy and turning up the lights to ward off evil spirits and protect themselves from the walking dead. They refrained from sex, lest the children they conceive “be cursed and become tools of the devil”(https://daily.jstor.org/daily-author/matthew-wills/).
The Jews did these things partly to look as busy as their neighbors and protect themselves against pogroms. They weren’t concerned so much with evil spirits and the walking dead as they were with the spirit of Jesus that their neighbors were conjuring up. At one time the Jews had mourned the birth of Jesus on Tisha B’Av, when they also mourned the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. After all, it was in Jesus’s name that their neighbors and the church made their lives a living Hell. They had reason to mourn. That Tu B’Shevat tradition eventually gave way to Nittel Nacht, a concretization of Jewish antipathy toward the Christian’s savior.
Nittel Nacht faded away as a common observance in the 19th century as relations with Christians warmed, but it is still practiced in some communities to this day. In fact, once when my family and I were living in Houston, a local Orthodox synagogue held a night of studying about Jewish views of Jesus – a clear departure from the synagogue’s regular fare of Jewish learning.
Thank God the days of Nittel Nacht are mostly behind us, those days of fear and loathing. In many places and at many times, rioting, rape and death were constantly lying in wait. Our ancestors resorted to standing in front of the store window as they walked down the street and engaged in mockery as they sought to gird themselves against hatred and oppression.
On this Christmas Eve, as we remember the wanderings of our People, we give thanks for our Christian neighbors and the love they bestow on us as a community and as individuals. Such would have been unimaginable at other times and in other places throughout history. And just as our Christian family members sojourn with us on our sacred festivals, so, too, let us sojourn with them in their celebration of Christmas. As Jews, will most assuredly eat Chinese food, go to the movies and take advantage of empty ski slopes, but let us also be sure to bless those around us with joy and peace and wish them all a very Merry Christmas.