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Happy... Whatever?

Posted on 01/03/2014 @ 03:02 PM

By now, everyone is fully aware of the ‘War on Christmas’, whether it is a real thing or not. The public debate about substituting “Happy Holidays” for any greeting which refers to a specific winter-time holiday is one where many American Jews have some skin in the game. Yet, this year, I noticed a much more bizarre and less-widely discussed war waged between Jews themselves—The War on New Year. “Happy Secular New Year!” “Happy 2014!” Why do some Jews I know put extra effort into downplaying the significance of January 1st as THE new year? Does saying “Happy New Year” somehow indicate a detached relationship from the importance and primacy of Rosh HaShanah as the Jewish New Year? These subtle edits to the traditional Gregorian New Year greeting, while innocuous, point to two profound questions of Jewish life in the Diaspora:

· Who am I in relation to the (Gentile) world around me? and
· By whose cycle am I structuring my life?

These are not new questions. This week’s incredibly artful parsha, Bo, describes the last three plagues (locusts, darkness, death of the first born) to cripple Egyptian society, Pharaoh’s submission to Moshe and God, and details of the first Passover—all significant preludes to the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. In the midst of all this high drama, an often-overlooked yet central act of Israelite freedom is found in God’s first mitzvah to the entire Jewish people: This month is for you head of months, it is the first for you of the months of the year (Ex. 12:2). Why is the establishment of an annual cycle the first communal mitzvah given? Sforno, the 16th C. Italian commentator elucidates: From here on out, your months will be yours, to do with them as you wish. When you were enslaved, your days were not your own, but were determined by your oppressors. In other words, more than obedience and submission, God’s prerequisites for a covenantal relationship are complete freedom and self-determination.

How does this Torah speak to us now? In a time when our American identities are firmly established and active assimilation is a pillar of liberal Judaism, how do we engender our yearly cycle with the same liberating spirit in small but powerful ways, like carefully choosing our holiday greetings? In 2014, what noticeable ways will you exercise your Jewish identity in the public square, especially during Jewish and secular holidays?

This Shabbat message was written by Rabbi Zac Johnson, DJE of the Western States.

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