Throughout history, the Jewish people have wrestled with the questions of who we are. Are we a religion, as distinguished from Catholics, Protestants and Muslims? Are we a nation, as distinguished from those who are ethnically French, Italian or Chinese?
Are we both a religion and a national ethnic group at the same time, making us somewhat unusual in today's world?
The names of this week's double Torah portion and the Jewish calendar give us some answers.
The Torah is a holy book. The Torah and the rest of the Bible contain laws, narratives, poetry, wisdom and guidance for life, and for our relationship with God and each other. Later rabbinic writings (Midrash, Mishnah, Talmud) expand upon many aspects of these biblical teachings and help us translate them into our daily lives. Clearly, Judaism is a religion with many religious teachings to guide us.
Judaism, however, is also a national ethnic group linking the Jewish people all over the world and throughout history. In addition to our identity as Americans (or any other country in which we may live), Jews are part of a people who have a shared history, a common homeland and a mother tongue.
The first part of this week's Torah reading is titled Matot ("tribes") since Moses was speaking to the heads of the tribes. The Jewish people were divided into different tribes linked by family and clan. The entire Jewish nation can be seen as one large tribe, one extended family. Our tradition teaches that all Jews are responsible for, and connected with, each other. We are part of one mishpachah ("family").
The second portion of this week's Torah reading is titled Masei ("travels") since the Torah describes our movements and history from Egypt to the point when we were encamped east of the Jordan River, waiting to enter the Land of Canaan.
In addition to being a national group, Jews also have traveled the same roads together.
We share a history throughout the centuries whether we were there in person or not. We see ourselves as if we were all slaves in Egypt together, and were freed together with Moses. We are considered to have all been at Mount Sinai together. The story of Jews anywhere is our story as well, and our experiences as Jews are part of the experiences of Jews everywhere.
Trials and Tribulations
This week in the Jewish calendar is part of the three weeks that lead up to Tisha B'Av — the Memorial Day for the destruction of the Holy Temple and the loss of Jerusalem.
Throughout Jewish history, we have had golden eras and glory days, but we've also had periods of darkness and destruction. We celebrate the miracles and the good times, but we also commemorate the tragedies and the bad moments. Through it all, we stick together and face the tribulations that come our way. We do not want to forget the tough times, even as we celebrate the happy ones.
We learn that all who mourn for the loss of Jerusalem will come to rejoice over it. Even as these are the sad "three weeks of retribution" coming before Tisha B'Av, we look forward to the more uplifting "seven weeks of comfort" that follow and lead us to the beginning of the new Jewish year.
We end the reading of each book of the Torah with: chazak, chazak v'nitchazek — "Be strong, be strong and let us strengthen one another." We must do both — be strong for ourselves, and help each other become and stay strong.
May we always treasure our holy religious heritage, our longstanding national identity, our shared history together, our mutual responsibility for one another, our hope for a better world and a better future, and our resolve and determination to help make it happen.
Rabbi Robert Rubin is rabbi of Congregation Beth T'fillah of Overbrook Park in Philadelphia.