Many a strange thing happened this year. Proper trousers became memorabilia, we learned to identify, like judges in Project Runway, people who are able to, smile with their eyes, we’ve invented a new Yiddish word, when we complained that we were all geZoomed, so perhaps it is not so strange for a rabbinical student to write, what is, in effect, a bit of a Christmas sermon. For the first time this year, my Jewish heart sank because Christmas could not be celebrated. It has not suddenly become a meaningful date for me, nor have memories of history faded. But at the moment ‘Christmas was cancelled’ all I could feel was great sadness. For my friends who have true faith in Jesus, who find meaning in attending mass on this specific day, for whom this is a holy day rather than a holiday. For my friends who celebrate Christmas not so much for religious reasons, but as an opportunity to connect and spend time with family and friends, I felt pain. Even for the people who are just in it for the feast and drinks, looking now at their festive baked towers and boxes of wine pondering gobbling it all up by themselves, my heart goes out.
Last Shabbat Jewish communities across the UK read the Biblical story of Joseph once more. Read of Pharaoh’s dream of the seven fat cows coming out of the Nile, followed by the seven thin ones, and of Joseph’s interpretation that saved his life. The years of famine are coming, Joseph said, get the country ready. And Pharaoh listened, and appointed him chief of treasury. We had no Joseph of our own this time around, but the lesson of the story is still valid. In the last year, all Jewish festivals, alongside every Muslim, Hindu and other faith’s festivals were cancelled. The Passover cow was first, and Rosh Hashanah, then the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur came, and Sukkot all rose like skinny lonely cows from the Nile, much like Diwali and Id El-Phiter. Chanukah was yet another cow. Instead of gathering together, praying together, seeing our loved ones, exchanging gifts, we sat in front of screens and got a lot of practice in community building online. We have seen so many cows, we can identify a cow when we see one, and it is clearly here, the Christmas cow, making her way up from the mucky water. She is so slim that we can almost see her bare bones through her skin. She carries disappointment, anger, fear, her face twisted from anguish. We have all had our losses. Our high holidays felt somewhat low, and we can feel the fresh, surprising pain and bewilderment surrounding us now. Experienced in pain we can recall, however, how some lovely friends and neighbours, of all faiths, near and far, send us greeting cards, small gifts from big hearts, remembered to call ‘happy Chanukah’ after us. I sit here looking at a book about the Golem and cards sent to me from Berlin (thanks Kate and Susanne!) and at the chocolate coin pile that we haven’t managed to get through (thank you Noel), and think about how those and many more whose good wishes made me feel the light that Chanukah can bring, a light shining at the darkest night.
Before we went into Shabbat, we have read that the Oxford vaccine was approved. That this low-cost, old- tech, home-effort gamble seems to have paid off. If it is what we are indeed told, it is very much possible that by Pesach/Easter the first fat cow, a bit hesitant, perhaps even shy after what she’d seen, her fur glittering in the spring sun will finally put her first hoof on the river bank. As Jews, we have learned that even the darkest pit of despair is not deeper than faith, that fat cows are destined appear, just like thin ones. This pandemic had spared no one, no matter what their faith or colour were, it joined us together as a grieving nation. But as a nation, as a society, we still have a chance to save Christmas, in a spirit of love and hope, of brotherhood and consolation. If we add the Christmas cow to the Pesach, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Chanukah, Ramadan and Diwali cows, we can count together, and perhaps reach the magic number that makes it stop. We can pray that this was, that this is, indeed the seventh and last cow, that the star of redemption will once more shine (look out for the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter) over all of us.
Tali Artman Partock LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.