Happy Erev Christmas
Favorite posts from 2014, part 2

Reb Zalman, Rev. Howard Thurman, and Christmas

Thurman01My teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l) frequently told the story of how, when he began studying religion at Boston University, he used to enter the chapel each morning to pray shacharit, Jewish morning prayers. But he found that the crucifix which occupied a central place in that chapel made him uncomfortable, so he chose to pray in a closet instead.

Shortly after he began this practice, he noticed that someone had moved the crucifix aside and placed the Bible in the center of the room in apparent deference to his needs. In entering the chapel a bit early one morning, he saw who was moving the cross -- an African-American man who he didn't recognize, but assumed (from his humility and his quiet service) might be the janitor.

He wanted to study religion from an academic perspective, but was in those days still very close to his Chabad roots, and he questioned whether academic study of religion was "kosher" for him. So one day he decided to go and visit the dean, one Reverend Howard Thurman.

Imagine his surprise when he entered the dean's office and saw the very same man who had moved the cross to make him more comfortable! (I always heard multiple things in his voice at once when he told that part of the story -- chagrin that he had mistaken a dean for a janitor, alongside amusement at how the Holy One of Blessing works in mysterious ways.)

Reb Zalman admitted his fears about the academic enterprise at hand: would it shake his faith? Would it cause him to doubt? "Don't you trust the ruach ha-kodesh?" asked Reverend Thurman. (Ruach ha-kodesh is Hebrew for "holy spirit," more or less.) Reb Zalman realized that of course he did, and that if God had led him there, surely it was where he was meant to be.

I thought of that story again when I found, on the blog Telling Secrets, a beautiful poem from that same Reverend Howard Thurman. Although I am Jewish, I find profound resonance in his poem about Christmas:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

For those who celebrate, may today be meaningful. And may all of us enter, in days to come, into wthe holy work of finding the lost, healing the broken, bringing peace among people. Speedily and soon, amen.


(For more on Reb Zalman z"l, there's a wonderful PBS interview at Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: Extended interview with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. He tells the Rev. Thurman / ruach ha-kodesh story in that interview too.)