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Who am I? Who are you? Who are we?

09/01/2023 12:22:35 PM


Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Ki Tavo. A lot of the parasha is about commandments, and the consequences of following or not following them, and you will hear more about that tomorrow from our Bat Mitzvah who has studied hard to understand her Torah portion. 

About halfway through the parasha, in what seems a random break from the commandments and warnings and so on, the Deuteronomy 27:9 declares, “Moses and the priests spoke to all Israel, saying, 'Hush up and listen, O Israel! This very day, you have become a people to Adonai your God.'” They have just finished explaining to the Israelites that when they enter the land they must build an altar to hold the tablets of the commandments, and next they are told that they are about to stand on two mountains and affirm their understanding of the blessings and curses that will befall them according to their adherence to the commandments, but here, this random day in a long line of days where Moses yells at them about the commandments, this day, they become a People. 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century German rabbi often referred to as the father of Modern Orthodoxy, comments on this verse, “The Jewish people are unique among the peoples of the world: their nationhood was forged not at the point at which they gained their own land, or developed a common language or culture, but on the day on which they pledged to uphold the Torah . . .” But so much of the Torah is the Israelites pledging and repledging to uphold the Torah. And then some of them getting scared and wanting to run away from Torah or God, and collective punishment ensues, and those that are left must pledge yet again that they will uphold the Torah and follow God’s commandments. So what is the moment of peoplehood? Why does Moses bother to say, “This Day” in this parasha, when it has been so for the better part of 40 years at that point in the narrative, and yet still will not fully come to fruition for another few weeks’ worth of parashiyot, when the Israelites finally arrive at the precipice of the Promised Land. 

It is similar for our own sense of Jewish identity, or any aspect of our identity, today. We reach a certain level of understanding of ourselves, and we settle in, thinking, “This is who I am” or “This is where I belong” or “I have found my people!” And then something changes. Maybe it is something subtle and internal within us. Maybe it is something external and out of our control. Maybe it is some drama with the people we thought we related most to. In any case, none of us stay static. We move locations and we move on emotionally. We grow and change, and we develop deeper understandings of ourselves and our relationships to others. We hit milestones, like a Bat Mitzvah, and think, “OK Now I am a Jewish adult! I understand what my Jewish identity and community means to me, and I am ready to help serve it.” And then we learn something new that shakes our foundations. Or we hit a new milestone and realize how young we were at the last one and how arbitrary it now feels to think that *then* I felt like the “me” I would be forever. 

While the teenage years are an easy target for this sort of lesson, and appropriate tonight because of this weekend’s simcha, they are certainly not the only ones. People talk about how hard the teenage years are while you try to figure out who you are, but I remember feeling like no one warned me how hard college graduation would be. It's like a second puberty: your friends change as you leave the institutions that previously kept you together, new challenges and fears pop up every day from every direction, and your body changes again. It felt like I hit 23 and my metabolism came to a screeching halt. Now, at 35, I’ve been referred to as “middle-aged” twice by different medical professionals recently, and I’m again coming to terms with what that means for the “me” I thought I was. Obviously, I can’t speak with authority or from experience beyond this age, but I think it keeps happening for most people up until the moment of their final debilitation. Maybe at different intervals or over different things, but we all continue to learn new things about ourselves or the world around us, and it shifts how we relate to one another, to the Earth, to the Divine. 

May we grow into ourselves and our peoplehood. May we maintain our love and loyalty to our communities and the values given us by God and passed down to us by our ancestors. And may we celebrate this weekend with camaraderie and shared joy. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 


Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784