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Hark the Herald Angels Sing. . . a Rabbinic Perspective

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

I was driving in the other day and listening to Christmas music- am I allowed to say that? Beautiful music and voices. And then I listened to one lyric that intensely reminded me of one of the many reasons that I am not Christian. I’m sure you’ve heard this lyric- I have heard it many times. And yet, it gave me pause when the tenor sang out- “Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the new born king.”

Judaism and Christianity, Chanukkah and Christmas, are NOT in competition. One of the things I treasure MOST about Judaism is our fervent belief, expressed by the sages, that, “The righteous of all faiths have a share in the world to come.” We don’t believe that you have to be Jewish in order to be “saved,” and, therefore, we are not about the business of knocking on people’s doors and trying to convince them that we have a monopoly on the truth. Just the opposite- we think that Buddhism is great for Buddhists and Hinduism is great for Hindus.

Which is not to diminish the very real theologicial differences among these traditions. One of them has to do with babies. Carl Sandburg expressed it perfectly when he wrote that, “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.” Babies ARE little tiny miracles. They bring joy to our lives and hope to our hearts. I don’t dispute that “herald angels sing” when a new child is born. As Jews, we absolutely celebrate birth as a gift and a wonder.

Where I depart company with my Christian friends is in the belief that any one child is more divine than any other. As a Jew, my tradition teaches that every person born into the world is equally made in the divine image, equally contains a spark of God, equally has the capacity for great good and great evil- which is why, by the way, that I also disagree with the notion of “original sin” which is part of much Christian thinking as well. Why is this baby so different from other babies?

As Jews, we are an incredibly life-affirming people. So, it is surprising that when we celebrate a life well lived we do so NOT on the individual’s birthday, but, rather, on their yahrtzeit. A midrash captures the reason behind this practice:

“Once upon a time, a wise man went to the docks to watch as ships entered and left the port. He noticed that, as one ship sailed out toward the open sea, all the people on the dock cheered and wished it well. Meanwhile, another ship entered the port and docked. By and large, the crowd ignored it.

The wise man addressed the people saying, “You are looking at things backwards! When a vessel leaves, you do not know what lays ahead or what its end will be. So there really is no reason to cheer. But when a vessel enters the harbor and arrives safely home, that is something to make you feel joy.”

Life is that journey and we are the vessel. When a child is born, we celebrate. When a soul returns home, we mourn. Yet if we viewed life on earth the way the wise man viewed the ship, perhaps we too could say, “The vessel has gone on its journey, it has weathered the storms of life, it has finally entered the harbor and now it is safely home.” (Midrash, Shemot Rabbah) So, we wait until the journey is complete, when we know the full measure of what a person’s life represented, to celebrate that individual’s unique contributions. And we continue to remember and honor their memory on their yahrtzeit, NOT on their birthday.

Babies are great. I love babies, can’t get enough of them, and am beyond thrilled that my daughter Jessie has just announced that she is pregnant with our first grandchild. When that child is born, the heavnes will open and I will hear the angels sing. I can only hope that as a grandparent I will be able to keep in focus the fact that this blessed and miraculous event occurs thousands of times, every day, and that even my grandchild is no more precious than any other. All of our babies are precious beyond belief, and we treasure each and every one of them- equally!

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