Mordechai Soskil
Mordechai Soskil

Big Tent Judaism

Do you love the Jewish people? Do you like Jewish people? Amazingly different questions aren’t they. I think that we often love the idea of Klal Yisrael, or Knesset Yisrael, the ephemeral concept of the Jewish people as a unified whole. But that love sometimes starts to fall apart when we have to deal with people in the checkout line who can’t seem to count to 15 accurately. Let’s keep pushing on this for a second. When you read “Jewish People” what are the limits of the picture that paints in your mind? How far can you stretch that definition?

Now I am very aware of all the reasons that we Jews have chosen to cluster ourselves into different communities. It’s easy to say that there are theological differences but I think it’s more nuanced than that. When I speak to students I frame it like this; let’s assume for a moment that everyone is trying to honestly serve Hashem and the Jewish people in “the best way.” (Even if it makes me a bit of a dope, I like trying to assume the best of intentions at first.) There are two important values in opposition to each other- engagement and mesorah (our religious tradition.) These are both really important aspects of Judaism. On the one hand, we have a requirement of fidelity to The Law. We want to serve in the most authentic, most traditional way. On the other hand, we want to include as many people as possible. We want as many Jews as possible to “Do Jewish”. And we want them to do it joyously, lovingly, not out of begrudging sense of duty to their grandmothers. Some communities value engagement above all else. Some communities, for all sorts of theological and sociological reasons, stress mesorah. So it’s complicated.

And yet.

The haftorah this week (What? A dvar Torah about the haftorah? Is that even a thing?) states early on

הַרְחִ֣יבִי ׀ מְק֣וֹם אָהֳלֵ֗ךְ וִֽירִיע֧וֹת מִשְׁכְּנוֹתַ֛יִךְ יַטּ֖וּ אַל־תַּחְשׂ֑כִי הַֽאֲרִ֨יכִי֙ מֵֽיתָרַ֔יִךְ וִיתֵֽדֹתַ֖יִךְ חַזֵּֽקִי

Make wide the place of your tent! And stretch out the curtain [walls] of your dwelling! Don’t be stingy! Make those strings longer! Strengthen those pegs!

In context the prophet Isaiah is talking to the people of the land of Judah. Just having been ransacked by the Assyrians, nearly everything except the city of Jerusalem is a smoldering heap of broken glory. So many people are dead. Just a couple of years before the wealthier and more cosmopolitan Northern Kingdom had been similarly pillaged, it’s people sent into exiled, more or less, lost to Jewish history. And now the need to rebuild and start again looms dauntingly. The prophet sends words of hope. Soon Jerusalem will be so filled with people, soon the Beit Hamikdash so popular that you’ll need to make it bigger. Soon this barren woman will be a mother of so many she’ll need to put on an addition to have everyone home for Yom Tov! The prophet is telling us, soon we’ll need a bigger tent!

In our day that same metaphor has a different meaning. Is it anachronistic to put a 21st century meaning into that verse or is totally fair to assume that the words of the prophet lend themselves to the modern meaning of “make your tent bigger”? For the moment I’ll leave that question open BUT, if we do allow ourselves to read it with our modern eyes then the verses read as an interesting command – The previously barren mother should sing! She’ll have sooo many children, more than any one she might have thought a competitor. And now with so many children, she’ll need to “make her tent bigger”. And I think in our generation there is a lot of that in our families.

Jewish families in the 21st century, at least in America, seem so often less and less homogeneous. When I meet with students and tell them, “raise your hand if in your family, however you choose to define that, there are people who observe Judaism differently than you do,” nearly every hand goes up. Mine does also. I like to say, I am the black (hat) sheep in the family. There is often a lot of tension around these differences because they often impact us in one of the most important aspects of Judaism – how we eat! Lots of other things create tension – different priorities on how money is spent, very different schedules especially for families with school age kids, and different ways of celebrating simchas. But despite the tension, many families make it work. (1)

What’s the key to “big tent” families? I think setting clear expectations is a good start. Most of the time, most of the people are going to have to compromise, and that is going to make everyone a little bit uncomfortable. What I like to call an equilibrium of misery. No one is too unhappy and no one is really all that thrilled. We’re ready to compromise because family is a value. Another key is open and early communication. What does everyone need? Where is there room to give? What is the most important? And I think we should not underestimate the importance of just keeping your big, fat, mouth closed. You’re there to celebrate, perhaps to give honor and show respect, to enjoy the moment. Don’t ruin it because she’s wearing THAT, and he’s still talking about THE THING. Be like Elsa and just let it go.

The haftorah continues with lovely poetry describing the love between G-d and the Jewish people in the terms of romantic love between a husband and wife. (I assume of the 7-before-Rosh Hashanah- haftorahs this one connects to Ki Teizei because there are so many mitzvoth in it that describe marriages that have failed. This is a way of saying, Klal Yisrael, not you and me. We’re still in it together.) But the haftorah ends with what seems a total total non sequitur.

כִּי־מֵ֥י נֹ֨חַ֙ זֹ֣את לִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֣ר נִשְׁבַּ֗עְתִּי מֵֽעֲבֹ֥ר מֵי־נֹ֛חַ ע֖וֹד עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ כֵּ֥ן נִשְׁבַּ֛עְתִּי מִקְּצֹ֥ף עָלַ֖יִךְ וּמִגְּעָר־בָּֽך

For as the waters of Noah is this for me. Just as I have sworn not to have the waters of Noah pass again on the Earth so to I swear from unleashing my wrath on you and from yelling at you.

What in the world is Noah do here? Who’s talking about Noah? What is the connection? Let me ask you a question; let’s pretend for a moment that the Torah never told us the story of Noah and the flood. What would we be missing that we don’t get from somewhere else? The episode of Noah ends with a promise that Hashem will never “reboot” the world again. From that moment on, history only moves in one direction. From that moment on the world is on the path forward, always forward, sometimes in leaps and sometimes in chaotic, unbalanced, toddler steps. But always forward. And that’s what Noah is doing here. Hashem says you and Me, we’re in this for the long haul.

Hashem promises us that we’re on a journey that leads us towards a great reconciliation. We are inexorably on the path where, just like so many families, the whole Jewish people will be together in one big tent. And in that tent we won’t just love each other, we’ll like each other too.

(1) From the Give Credit Where Credit Is Due category, I have to give a shout out to my brother and sister-in-law in particular who are so dedicated to making sure that our whole family can be together for big times like Thanksgiving and “ordinary” times like Sunday barbeques. Thank you so much!

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies for the high school at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now two precious granddaughters.