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January 2017

01/21/2017 03:32:32 AM


Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel

In rabbinical school, we had many homework assignments, unsurprisingly.  Many were meaningful.  Some were, well, not.  And several were somewhere in the middle.  One sticks out as incredibly monotonous and apparently meaningless, but from which, in the end, I gained Torah--unexpected wisdom and perhaps even truth.

The assignment, one of the first in our Bible class during our second year of rabbinical school—soon after we got back from our year in Israel, when the “real learning” began, was to find every time the phrase “Beit Yisrael” The House of Israel appears in the Tanach (the Hebrew bible).  It appears a lot.

First off, before that sounds completely overwhelming and unacchievable, it was, in part, a task in teaching us how to use the Concordance (lift up conCordance)—this big book that lists every word in the Hebrew bible, every time that it is used, in every form that it’s used.

Now, students these days have it easy.  This is all computerized—there’s even apps that can do this work.  In my day, by the end of rabbinical school, there was one program that could somewhat search for words by root—and it was incredibly helpful.  But it wasn’t good for nuanced searches like this, especially not with very common words--or words that could be confused with other words (like beit and bat).  Also our professors had a somewhat inherent distrust of technology (and, at the start of my education, it didn’t really exist yet—or at least we didn’t know about it or have access to it).  And the technology just wasn’t there yet for it to be a truly usable tool.  Also, books are an essential part of Judaism, and remain an important tool.  Rabbinical students still learn how to use a concordance--they just don't actually use it as much as we did.

And, believe me, we used the book.  It was a book we used a lot in Bible class. It’s helpful for understanding Biblical Hebrew, by seeing how words are used, by their context throughout their usage.  I admit, I’ve even looked things up in the concordance since Rabbinical school.

But this assignment—looking up Beit Yisrael? This was tedious.  Because, well, as you can imagine, the phrase appears a lot.  I mean, think about how many times The House of Israel comes up.  But, well, it did teach us how to use the book well.  But, here’s what was truly interesting--and made me learn to appreciate the concordance.

It showed us explicitly that Beit Yisrael means 2 different things: in some places, especially early on, it means Israel’s Household—Jacob’s wives and kids, essentially.  But, in other places, it means the House of Israel—what becomes the Jewish people.  And, it’s in the first paragraph or so of Sh’mot—the Book of Exodus and this week’s Torah portion, that the meaning shifts.  It’s at that moment that our ancestors transform from an extended family into a people—into our people.  Into the House of Israel.  So what I took from that assignment and that idea, is that our people is still connected to the connection of having once been a family.  So what does it mean to be a part of this House of Israel?

Other than the fact that we are at our source, one big, extended, sometimes messy family, what does being the extended House of Israel call us to do?

Looking at this week’s portion, we can see in our own ancestors, the models of Moses and Miriam that it means that we need to be connected.  We need to look out for one another, and we need to keep an eye on each other, even when it isn’t obvious.  We need to make sure that each other’s well being is being taken care of.  And, we need to recognize that we aren’t perfect—none of us.  Sometimes, we make mistakes.  Sometimes, situations get out of our control—but that doesn’t remove us from the household. In some cases, even leaders make mistakes.  And, if those leaders are able to learn from those mistakes—do t’shuva, so to speak, they can still be great leaders.

And we can see in others, like Shifra and Puah, the Egyptian Midwives, that even those that are not of our people, are still part of our house.  These women, who defied the King’s orders to save the Israelite babies, working bravely for what they knew was right.  They were not part of our direct family, but they were certainly part of the greater House of Israel.  In today’s parlance, we’d call them allies.  

We can see also the wisdom of Jethro, a Midianite Priest who becomes both father in law and advisor to Moses.  And Zipora, who gives Moses love and shows wisdom of her own.  And their son Gershom, who is named for being a stranger there—for as the house of Israel we have so often been strangers where we have dwelt—a minority, even when accepted.  And yet we have also learned from this that we must—we MUST—welcome the stranger—it is our mandate, our sacred obligation.

We are a people who stands strong, who does not give up, who does not submit or give up, or become weak, but a people that thrives despite the odds.

This is our heritage.  We are the House of Israel.  This is who we are and who we always have been.

And looking more broadly, we are the House of those who struggle with God.  The people who always must question.  They people who always seek answers and ask questions.  And the people for whom an answer usually leads to even more questions and sometimes even takes the form of a question.

We are a people for whom prayer comforts the afflicted and yet afflicts the comfortable, so that we help one another, and yet always seek to find that in the world which needs to be fixed.

We are a people who is taxed with tikkun olam, repairing a world which is irreparably broken, knowing that the task is insurmountable, yet having been taught that even if the task is great, and we are not responsible to finish it, we are also not allowed to run from it.

We are the house of Israel, a people responsible for one another, and yet responsible for those around us more vulnerable than ourselves.  A people at times unsure of how to strike that balance.

I got back last week from a trip to the land of Israel, a place as complicated and complex as the people for whom it is named, or is the naming the other way around?  The bulk of my trip was a seminar with the Executive Masters Program I am doing through the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion towards a Masters in Religious Education.  The trip was amazing, as trips to Israel often are.  I could say much about it.  I probably will at many later dates.  But at this moment, I share just a few words.  The main focus of our trip was the idea that there are many narratives that make up the story of Israel—there is no one single story, no one lens through which Israel can be viewed or understood.  There are sephardim and ashkenazim and mizrachim, there are Haredim and Reformim and secularim and Masorti and Masorati, There are Jews and Arabs and Arab Jews and Christians and Muslims, there are right wings and left wings and those in between, there are those that want to fight and those that want peace that just want to live their lives, there are those that want to make conversation and those that make the city streets their canvas and those that want to make music.  And they all tell their own story. There are so many truths and narratives and stories, all of which are held together in the swath of land we call Israel.  

And I think that is also at the essence of what it means to be part of the people we call the House of Israel.  We are a people that holds together contrasting and, perhaps, conflicting truths.  Not always at the same time, but sometimes.  Not always in the same person, but sometimes.  And yes, when there are 2 Jews, there are quite often 3 opinions.  Because that is who we are.  And it is how we continue to be the continuation of what was once just a family. 

We are the house of Israel; we are Jacob’s kids.  We struggle with the divine in the universe, and with the world around us.  We try to do what is best, and sometimes we err.  We watch out for each other, and for those who need help.  We try to make a better world.  We defy authority when righteousness is on the line.  We know what it is to be the stranger.  And we try to prevent others from feeling strange.  And we do our best when we ourselves feel strange.  We are the House of Israel.  We struggle because it is our essence.  It's what our family has always done.

Sun, September 22 2019 22 Elul 5779