The Oy of Peoplehood

Hope everyone had a great week.


This week’s parshah, Matot-Masei, might as well be titled: ‘oy’. It talks a lot about war and
booty and prisoners and revenge. All I can say is to remember we are never commanded to do
that, we are reading about warfare in the ancient world – it’s a slice of hell.
But there’s a defining moment in there that talks about two tribes telling Moses they prefer to
live outside of Israel and not set up their homes within the borders of the land.
Every time I read this section, I am taken with the fact that from the moment we had a nation
of Jews enter the land of Israel, we had a group within the nation saying that life in Israel is not
for them. In other words, there are no Israeli Jews without simultaneously having Diaspora
Jews.


And now I arrive at today.


I am the generation born into a world where there is a modern state of Israel. I can’t imagine a
world without Israel, though my parents lived in a world that produced the Holocaust so that
answers that question.


But I struggle with the relationship Jews in Israel have with Jews outside of Israel and visa versa.
I’m not sure we’ve figured out how to do ‘peoplehood’. Our realities are so vastly different and
while we share Jewish history and culture, those of us outside of Israel have mastered living in a
different culture as we layer our identities. Where can we connect?


A few weeks ago, I visited Israel. There were days I struggled with what I saw and there were
days of such connection words fail. At one point, while talking with an Israeli about Judaism,
they listened to my views and then said, ‘so you’re a Reformit.’ I was a bit confused and
explained that I am not a Reform Jew as some of my Jewish choices wouldn’t fit that
community. They explained that I seem liberal, but I also keep commandments, so I have to be
‘a Reformit.’ I could see there were no other categories of Judaism possible in this discussion,
so I said nothing.


By the way, this week’s parshah clearly states what the Talmud later repeats as a Jewish
precept: silence is agreement. I said nothing and therefore chose to agree with him at that
moment. You choose your battles.


My thoughts go back years ago to when I was saying Kaddish for my father. I was also leading a
trip to Israel at that time and was strategically finding a minyan every morning so I could say
Kaddish. We were in Tel Aviv for a few days and I found a minyan in a small shul on a main street not far from my hotel. It was a group of men on their way to work stopping in quickly to
pray. It was ten men with no rabbi or chazan leading them.


The first day I walked in, I went to the women’s section which was on the same floor as the
men, a pretty flimsy mechitzah that allowed us to see each other and hear each other. They
definitely knew I was there because I had to climb over all the stalked chairs, tables and books
filling the women’s section. Actually, I was happy to find a place where I could sit alone with
my thoughts, so I didn’t mind the clutter.


One morning I was delayed and ended up running to get to the minyan in time. As I ran in, the
men were already finished and were putting away their Tefillin, ready to go to work. I
remember standing there and saying: ‘you’re finished??’, in English and then starting to cry.
These were not quiet, subtle tears. I mean sudden, anguished sobs. It was the first time I had
missed Kaddish all year and I didn’t expect the pain I was feeling. The men stopped and one
man asked me what happened. I told them I was saying Kaddish for my father but now I missed
it.


In Hebrew, I heard some of them ask each other why I’m saying Kaddish, don’t I have brothers.
One man quietly asked if it was allowed. Only one man asked the group who I am. All of these
comments were happening at once as these men are standing there, late for work, watching a
strange foreign woman crying.


The man who first spoke to me said to the group, ‘she’s saying kaddish. She needs a minyan, so
no one is going anywhere.’ Before I knew it, they all put down their Tefillin, stood around me in
a circle while one of them handed me a Siddur and said ‘Read!’ The page was already opened
to Kaddish and I quietly recited it as they all answered me.
That was peoplehood.


I have no doubt that most of them walked away confused by what I was doing. I’m also pretty
sure some of them agreed to be there so I would stop crying. The reasons don’t matter, we
created holiness together and fulfilled an ancient intent of unity.
O this week’s Parsha, when the tribe of Reuben tells Moses they don’t want to settle in Israel,
Moses argues. Actually, Moses threatens them. They stood their ground and the two sides
worked out a mutually agreeable arrangement. It strained the relationship of peoplehood then
and by the end of the book of Joshua it almost causes a civil war. The challenge of
understanding our peoplehood remains with us today and we inherit the challenge honestly.


A few weeks ago, when I was in Israel, I argued with some people I met and after I left, I missed
it. Like any family visit.

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