Jews, Christmas, and Coffee Cups – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5777

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To this rabbi, last year’s Starbucks red cup “controversy” (because these days even a few tweets count as a controversy) was completely baffling. The complaint among a small number of customers was that Starbucks had lost the Christmas spirit, since they had replaced the previous festively decorated cup with a solid red design. To a vocal few, this move represented another offensive attack in the perceived “war on Christmas.”

Just to be clear, I never want anyone to feel that their right to celebrate the religion of their choice is being infringed upon in any way. But when you walk through the mall before Halloween to see the first signs of the Santa photo booth and related Christmas décor, I have a hard time believing that Christmas is in the slightest danger.

Jews are in the minority in America, and especially so in Portland. It is no more obvious than during the months of November and December that I am a resident alien. When the green and red appears in every storefront and Bing Crosby starts a continuous rotation on the radio, I want to hide. Again, it’s not that I don’t enjoy seeing other people celebrating their own faith; I’m happy to live in a country where we are free to do so. It’s that the in-my-face commercialization for two straight months simply becomes overwhelming.

This week we read parshat Chayei Sarah. We read about Abraham and Sarah and their continued journey to raise their son Isaac to the chuppah and a life of good deeds. Our reading begins with the death of Sarah and Abraham looking for a proper place to lay her body to rest. Immediately after Sarah’s burial, Abraham sets out to find a life partner for his own son; hoping to ensure that he has comfort and support as he mourns his mother. The text continues with Isaac and Rebekah meeting, marrying, and falling in love (an appropriate order of events in Biblical times), and it ends with the death of patriarch Abraham.

Back at the beginning of the text, when Abraham is coping with the loss of his beloved wife Sarah, he is a stranger in a strange land. He has no Jewish cemetery, no chevra kavod hamet to help him with his burial. He is alone and in need of sacred space. So with nothing to lose, Abraham pleads in chapter 23, verse 4, “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you that I may remove my dead for burial.” The townspeople respond, “Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places.”

Abraham needs the cemetery plot, and he has no idea how his neighbors will react to his request. Will they accept him as a fellow resident or treat him like an unwelcome outsider? As it turns out, Abraham is surprised not only by their kindness, but at their perception of him. He is seen as faithful, and the Hittites admire him for the way in which he is tied to his faith.

Let’s face it. Passover and Easter will never get equal display space at most grocery stores, and perhaps as a minority, that’s as it should be. However, particularly during the winter season, there should be a way to give appropriate time and space to a commonly celebrated holiday, while acknowledging that it is not the only one celebrated. At least it would be nice to work toward that inclusive goal. This week’s Torah portion is a reminder of what it takes to respect the traditions of others, to embrace the diversity in our community, and to inspire – rather than alienate – one another with our faith and our ideals.

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