The holiday season is a time for giving and gratitude
by Rabbi Sally J. Priesand Rabbi Emerita, Monmouth Reform Temple, Tinton Falls
We offer thanks for the blessings we so often take for granted, hoping to count our blessings in such a way that we make our blessings count. We give gifts to those we love. Hopefully, we remember those who are not as fortunate as we are, and we do what we can to share what we have with others, something we often forget to do during the rest of the year.
A story is told about a king who ruled over a large kingdom. The king assumed that everyone lived as happy a life as he. Down in the valley, however, there was great unhappiness. He lived high on a mountain and from his window he could look down on the towns and fields which surrounded his castle on three sides. On the fourth side, the king could see the sea, an endless blue ribbon stretching out toward the horizon. It was a beautiful view from the castle, but little rain had fallen in more than a year, resulting in few crops and little food. The people were hungry and feared starvation. The king’s granaries, however, were full. His treasury was filled with gold, and his royal pantry was overflowing. The king was unaware of what was happening in his kingdom because he rarely spoke with his people and did not care very much about their lives. The situation got worse: no rain fell, the crops dried up, and the people grew hungrier and hungrier. They knew that the king’s granaries were full, and some people suggested they should approach the king and ask for food, but everyone was afraid to go to the castle.
Finally, in desperation, an old fisherman volunteered to go speak with the king. “Why not?” he reasoned,” I am old and will soon die anyway. If I don’t die of old age, I will surely die of starvation.” And so, he set out, trudging up the mountain to the castle. The king received the man graciously. After all, he rarely had visitors from among his subjects. The old fisherman described to the king what was happening in the towns and villages of his kingdom, how the drought had affected the crops, how the people were hungry, and feared starvation. The king yawned, looking bored, and replied, “That is not my concern. I am not hungry, and I do not feel their hunger.” The old fisherman was on the verge of exploding with anger, but he realized this would accomplish nothing. He thought quickly and responded, “I see your point, Your Majesty. And, naturally, you are right. And just so you know I mean you only well, I would like to invite you to go fishing with me. I have heard that you love to fish, and I know the most wonderful spot. The water is filled with fish, and you will have a most wonderful time.” Now the king could not resist an invitation like this, and so he went with the fisherman. They got into the fisherman’s tiny, dilapidated rowboat. The old fisherman rowed hard, and the king rested, sunning himself. Finally, after an hour of rowing along the shore, they arrived at a beautiful little inlet. The king looked around but saw nothing except rocks and seaweed. “This is the spot from which we head out to sea, Your Majesty,” said the old fisherman, and he rowed straight out away from shore for yet another half hour.
Then the old fisherman pulled his oars into the boat, took an awl out of his back pocket, and began chipping a hole in the bottom of the boat under his seat. “What are you doing, old man?” exclaimed the king in alarm. “Stop that, this instant! Do you realize what you are doing? The boat will sink!” “Yes, I know. That is what I intend to do,” responded the old man quietly. “I am trying to sink the boat because I am so hungry, like all the people in your kingdom, that I want to die.” “But I do not want to die!!” shouted the king. “No, Your Majesty. I know that.
That is why I am only making a hole under my seat in the boat, at my end of the boat. What happens at your end of the boat is not my concern.” The king’s anger turned to laughing, and then to sadness. “I see what you are saying, my good man. You have made your point well. I have closed my eyes to what others feel because I did not feel it myself. Please row me back to shore — safely — and I will open my granaries to everyone.
And I thank you, old man, for your great wisdom in teaching me a lesson I sorely needed to learn.” The king made the old fisherman his trusted advisor, and the old fisherman was placed in charge of the granaries where, like the biblical Joseph, he dispensed food and kept everyone alive until the drought ended. The king and the old fisherman became good friends, and frequently went fishing together.
This is one of the important lessons we have learned this year from the pandemic: we are all in the same boat together. What we do or fail to do affects everyone else. At this holiday season, then, let us give thanks for our blessings and do what we can to help others, knowing that when we pool our resources, we can accomplish more than we know. Wear a mask. Stay home and enjoy your family. Social distance when you go out, and do not gather in large crowds. And most importantly, during these days of darkest night, rejoice in the light that all our religious traditions bring into the world.
Rabbi Priesand was ordained in 1972 as America’s first female rabbi. She served Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls from 1981 to 2006, becoming Rabbi Emerita upon her retirement. She currently serves as President of Interfaith Neighbors in Asbury Park.
Why does distress so often breed division? A Christian might respond with a reversal: because division breeds distress. What we call “sin” is the self-inflicted sorrow that comes when we separate ourselves from God, from the goodness that is God. What we call “God” is the origin of all goodness. And when we turn away from the good, we sow division both within ourselves as a society and within each of us as individuals.
Some would judge this to be a fable, one that does not correspond to our contemporary world. But we do experience distress and division, and we show no signs of outgrowing them. Shouldn’t we admit that something is amiss in our very coding? We do not even suffer natural disasters the way other creatures do. We fear them, we resent them, we deny them. We seek to blame them on one another. No animal does this.
Even those who reject this interpretation as fable must give some account for the distress and division within ourselves. Often their attempts are feebler than their rejected fable: a selfish gene, an evolutionary tendency to explain everything that is. If scientific knowledge means predictive knowledge, insight that tells us what to expect, what have you answered when you assert that we humans have necessarily evolved into whatever it is we are? Is this less flatulent than saying that God willed it?
No, something is to be gained by pondering the division that distress can breed, by going deeper than science alone can take us. The philosopher René Girard suggested that the scapegoat stands at the very origin of human society. When primeval humans encountered distress, something that stood between them and the way they thought that the world should be, they began to lash out against each other. Religion arose to satiate the violence by choosing a scapegoat to be sacrificed. What would unite the crowd was hatred of the chosen outsider.
Girard was not proposing a fable. He wanted to identify the origin of fable, or religion and culture itself. It is hard to dismiss his insight if we consider the moral effects of Covid-19. Pondering the spiritual distress of the pandemic raises a question we can never answer and never stop asking: Why did this happen?
We believers are forced to admit to others and—even harder—to ourselves that God has allowed this to occur. What about non-believers? How do atheists, who are normally so vocal, answer the same question? Shouldn’t they be stepping up and saying to the rest of us that evolution’s losers should not be whiners, that we should simply accept a mindless nature as our sovereign? After all, a more evolved humanity will emerge. Someone must be the steppingstone.
Believers and non-believers are both left before an ultimate power that appears indifferent to us. We are still where Gerard began. Our distress breeds our division, and we turn upon some third. We blame the virus’ country of origin. We call the virus a lie because loathing liars is something that we can do. We retreat into individualism. We call the common good “they” and refuse to be dictated to by them. In so many ways we choose division rather than acknowledge our own distress. Science will eventually save us from the pandemic, but who will save us from ourselves?
The Prophet Isaiah took a different path. Advent does as well.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you,
while you wrought awesome deeds, we could not hope for,
such as they had not heard of from of old (63: 19; 64: 2-3)
Advent begins as an admission. It is okay to be sad, to lament. God is goodness itself; so is this world that God created, but not at this moment, not for us. We must not respond to distress with division. We must give ourselves more fully to God, and we do that by giving ourselves more fully to each other. Better to lament than to loathe.
Responding to Romans 8:26, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with unutterable groans,” St. Augustine explained that as God cannot groan within himself, the apostle must mean that the
Spirit groans within us, the church. Indeed, that the nature of the church is to lament, to weep on Babylon’s riverbanks, to accept the will of God rather than respond with the sin of division.
Nor is it a small matter that the Holy Spirit teaches us to groan; for he is reminding us that we are on pilgrimage and teaching us to sign for our home country, and, with that longing, we groan. The one who is doing fine in this world, or rather he thinks that all is going well for the one whose joy is in material, time-bound things and who rejoices in futile bliss, such a person has the voice of a crow; for the sound of a crow is noisy, not sighing. Yet the one who knows that he is crushed by the weight of mortal existence and is wandering far from the Lord, not yet holding the eternal bliss, which we have been promised, but has it in hope, and will have it in reality when the Lord (who first came concealed in humility) comes in glory, that person groans. And as long as that is the reason for mourning, he does well to groan; the Spirit has taught him to moan; he has learned to moan from the dove (Homilies on the Gospel of John 6.2)
Advent ends in Christmas, but it begins with acceptance. This is not the world we want. We can respond to our distress by sowing division. Or we can moan like the dove, waiting for the Word that will surely come, following the Word to a homeland we have never seen.
It is okay to be sad. Rather than loathe, we lament, because we know of a better land. In a manger and upon a cross we have seen primal goodness in our midst, clothed in humility. Now we moan, because we want him to return, robed in glory.
Prayers for Kwanzaa
Giver of life,
Thanks be to you for your many blessings,
And for the beauty of the bountiful Earth.
Forgive us for taking our many blessings for granted.
Pardon us for abusing and exploiting your creation.
We are not responsible stewards; our consumerism & materialism hinder us
Merciful God, your creation groans for liberation.
Let us be “the first fruits” of your Spirit for a hurting world.
Help us to transform our bombs into bread, our bullets into books.
And count our blessings and name them one by one.
O come all you faithful, rejoicing and victorious,
Come, let us embrace the mystery in the spirit of life, as we celebrate the goodness of Kwanzaa and the African American heritage.
Come and give thanks for companions on the journey in the struggle for freedom and justice.
Our roots in the soil and soul of Mother Africa reach far and wide.
Creator of all, lead us to be true to our nature with respect and dignity for life, from conception to its natural end at death.