Sunday, December 18, 2011

12 Tribes, One Family

 With Rabbi Schwartz away at the URJ Biennial, it was my honor to deliver the D'Var Torah in his stead during this past Friday night Shabbat service.  Here is what I spoke about:

This weeks Torah reading tells the familiar story of the sons of Jacob, how Joseph was Jacob's favorite, and how Joseph's brothers were filled with jealousy and sold him into slavery.  Joseph's story foreshadows that of the Israelites, as Joseph winds up in Egypt as a slave, and imprisoned.  Just as Jacob had been renamed Israel, indicating he would be the ancestor of the entire Jewish people, each of Jacob's sons bore the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel, and was considered the ancestor of that tribe. This is actually a common motif in folklore and oral traditions all over the world. It is a way to symbolize how certain groups of people may be closely related to and allied with other groups of people. It provides a concrete and personalized way to represent political and cultural relationships. 

And when there is no writing, when people can only rely on word of mouth passed down through generations, the stories can change. So for example, a tribe in West Africa told the tale of seven brothers, each the ancestor of a neighboring tribe. British researchers recorded this myth early in the twentieth century, and no subsequent studies were carried out until sixty years later. During that time, two of the tribes had disappeared, and the myth had changed accordingly, so that they now told the story with only five brothers instead of seven. Not only was there no acknowledgement that any change had occurred on the part of these peoples, but they insisted that this was the story that they had always told. 

But because our stories were written down, we remember the 12 tribes, even though 10 of them were lost when the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians, leaving only the holy tribe of the Levites, who were not allowed to own land, and the southern kingdom of Judah, which is why we call ourselves Jews, and our religion Judaism.  So we remembered the 10 lost tribes, and we searched for them, and upon discovery of the New World, some believed that the native Americans might be the 10 lost tribes. Actually, there seems to be some evidence coming up recently that not all of the 10 tribes destroyed, and remnants still existed during the Roman era.

But the point I want to stress is the idea expressed by the American motto, e pluribus unum, out of many, one. We were many different tribes, just as today we are many different kinds of Jews, observant and non-observant, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Hasidic, Sephardic and Ashkenazic, Jews by choice and Jews by birth, but at the same time we're all one people, all the House of Jacob, the Children of Israel. From one comes many when following the command to be fruitful and multiply, but out of many we are still one.

Judaism is a religion founded on oneness, one God, one Creation, one human family, all descendants of Adam and Eve, and of Noah. And Noah had 3 sons, Shem, who is said to be the ancestor of all of the Semites, Ham, the ancestor of the peoples living to the south of the Semites, and Japheth, the ancestor of the peoples living to the north of the Semites. Again, we find the same motif, explaining how different peoples came to be, and how they we are all united by a common bond.

Judaism is unique in retaining a sense of the tribal, while maintaining a universal and holistic outlook. The problem with universalism is tat it is very hard to get a handle on all of humanity at once, very difficult to relate on a scale of millions and billions of people. That is why Joseph Stalin, a monster on a par with Adolph Hitler, rightly observed that while one death may be a tragedy, one million is simply a statistic. And that is why large scale efforts to change the world for the better, such as Lenin and Stalin claimed to be engaged in, so often turn into tragedy, for millions of people. 

What is the answer? Perhaps it comes in a slogan that has become popular over the past few decades. Think globally, but act locally. And that is exactly the outlook that Judaism has maintained, for millennia.

We think globally, but we also believe in the importance of the tribe, the community, the idea that we are all responsible for one another, that it is not just about isolated individuals acting alone, that we have to work together and help one another. It starts with family, with honoring our fathers and mothers. It broadens to the community, to do no harm to our neighbors by stealing, or murdering, or committing adultery, and to not covet our neighbors' possessions or bear false witness and tell lies about them. To avoid doing to those around us what is hateful to us. And in our worship, we relate to God, not only as individuals, but as a community, and on behalf of our community.

Joseph's brother's acted selfishly, as individuals, ignoring the fact that they were all one family. The first brothers to appear in the Torah, Cain and Abel, play out a similar scenario, as Cain murders Abel, and when asked by God where his brother is, Cain responds, am I my brother's keeper? By this negative example, we are taught that we are in fact responsible for our brothers and sisters, for our family and community, for out tribes and peoples, and for each other as one human family. Working together, collectively, we can think globally and solve the world's problems, repair and heal the world, by acting locally with humility, and care and compassion for one another.

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