Dear Jew in the City,
How do I raise my kids to be respectful of Christmas yet not have Christmas-envy? People always seem to go to one extreme or the other, but I’d like to give over a nuanced perspective to my children.
That’s a great question. I’m no parenting expert, plus I don’t know your child’s age or the extent of his Jewish education, so I’ll share some ideas for you, the parent. You can extrapolate from there whatever you think may be appropriate.
The first thing is that everybody has their own portion in life, and everybody’s is different. Some are born wealthy, others are born needy. Some are healthy, others are sickly. Some are attractive, others are “unconventional.” Nobody, however, has it all. G-d gives each person what He knows is best. A natural human reaction would be for one to lament, “Oh, why couldn’t I have been born rich instead of good looking?” The mishna in Avos tells us, however, that a truly rich person is one who is satisfied with his portion.
This is also true with mitzvos. Men and women have most mitzvos in common, but there are some significant differences. Kohanim (Preists), Leviim (Levites) and Yisraelim (the rest of the Jewish nation) likewise have different responsibilities. Similarly, Jews and non-Jews have different obligations. (Jews have 613 commandments; non-Jews have seven.) It’s perfectly natural for a person to wonder, “Why must I do this?” or “Why can’t I do that?” but the reality is that G-d gives each person the combination of mitzvos that’s appropriate for his soul. Taking the wrong set would be like taking somebody else’s prescription medication, spiritually speaking. It might do one person well but harm another.
Things that seem attractive to us may not be for the best of reasons. When I was a child, I saw a movie in which a character complained, “Dad always favored you! Why did you get the iron lung?” to which his brother responded, “I was the one who was sick!” Similarly, Joseph’s brothers were jealous of his coat. Wasn’t his father showing blatant favoritism by giving it to Joseph? I don’t know about that. The other brothers all had mothers. Is it so terrible to give Joseph, whose mother had died, something nice to try and make his life a little less sad? (And yes, Rachel was also Benjamin’s mother but he was just a baby.)
So we don’t get to celebrate Christmas, which looks like a lot of fun. Okay, but do we really need Christmas when G-d has given us Chanukah, Purim, Pesach, Succos, Shavuos, Simchas Torah, Lag b’Omer, Tu b’Shevat, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? And let us not forget Shabbos, which we get Every. Single. Week. In what conceivable universe do we not have enough holidays? Reuven, Shimon, Levi –you guys have a mother! Why are you jealous of a coat?
One of the “Ten Commandments” is not to covet that which belongs to others. There’s a simple explanation for this mitzvah: it’s to help us appreciate what G-d has given us. I’ll explain: The Sefer HaChinuch uses the example that, as attractive as the idea may seem, most of us are never going to be able to marry royalty. That’s unrealistic, and one who has his heart set on it is going to find himself bitterly disappointed. In contemporary terms, let’s say I wanted to take Queen Rania of Jordan to dinner and a movie. Nothing serious, strictly platonic. She’ll see I’m a pretty decent guy and it will do wonders for relations in the Middle East. You can probably see 175 reasons why this is a spectacularly unrealistic idea. It’s so unrealistic, it should never even have occurred to me. I’m never going to date the queen of Jordan and I’d better get used to it.
This feeling of “it’s unrealistic; I should come up with something else” is exactly how we should feel when it comes to others’ possessions. If Bob has a nice car, I should be happy for Bob. It should never even occur to me to try and acquire it because G-d has made it part of Bob’s portion, not mine. Other people’s things are as off limits as royalty; the thought of taking something that’s off-limits to us should never even arise. Well, that goes for other people’s holidays, too.
So G-d gives everyone what they need, be they possessions, mitzvos, or holidays. You don’t need an iron lung if you’re healthy. You don’t need a fancy coat if you have a mother. You don’t need Christmas if you have Shabbos. Don’t begrudge others things they have been given because your needs and theirs are not the same.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC educational correspondent