All in the family

Rabbi Hyim Shafner serves Bais Abraham Congregation.

By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

What are the Jews? Not a religion, for there are many who would say they are Jewish but are not religious. Not a nation, for a nation is identified with its land and shared culture, and Jews have not had a land for most of their history and do not share cultural identities such as dress, food and spoken language.   

I believe Jews are primarily a family. People can be born into Judaism or join it, just as they can be adopted into a family. They can try and leave a family but would nevertheless still be considered a part of it, just as in Judaism. One can violate the rules of the family but still be considered part of it, just as with Judaism.  

This Torah portion prepares the Jewish people to enter the land as a nation. It contains laws about the holiness of the land and about taking care not to follow idolatrous practices of the current people of the land. It opens with a unique national ceremony that  involved the entire nation, which has to be performed when the Jews first enter the land on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal.

The portion ends, however, with the holidays of Passover, commemorating the exodus from Egypt, and Shavuot and Sukkot, remembering how we traveled though the desert together. The Torah says here that on each of these holidays, the Jewish people must gather together “in the place which God has chosen” — the centralized temple. 

These three holidays, cast here in the context of the national gatherings they prompt, make a kind of bridge between the familial notion of the Jews and the national one. Each of these holidays commemorates something nostalgic from our history: from before we had a land and a government, when we were but a large Jewish family, redeemed from Egypt due to being the children of Abraham, and guided in the desert to receive the Torah as a result of earlier covenants God made with our ancestors.

Here, though, these holidays meet up with a new national agenda as occasions for gathering the entire Jewish people together in Israel in one central space three times each year.   

Perhaps the lesson is that we must be a nation within a land,  living as a light unto the nations on the global stage. But at the same time, we must also function as a family, feeling a sense of responsibility for fellow Jews that comes with that and the love and caring that is natural in a family.