Yechiel Shaffer
The Rabbi of Pikesville Jewish Congregation in MD

What Toldot Teaches us about Building a Community Culture

How are we supposed to have a community in the middle of a pandemic?

When the invisible impact we have on each other is so obvious, we need to weigh, and examine the elements of community that are essential – the parts of community that have become harder to see during a time of social distancing. I believe the Torah portions we are studying on Shabbatot this time of the year, offer us some insights into the identifying markers of a robust community culture.

Following the birth of their twin boys, Rivkah & Yitzchak seek a place to call home. They settle in Gerar (Genesis 26:6). We are then presented an unusual situation, in which the locals (the Phillistines) approach Yitzchak and ask him who Rivkah is. Yitzchak identifies his wife, Rivkah, as his sister, with concerns for his safety, “…for he was afraid to say “my wife,” thinking, “The men of the place might kill me on account of Rebekah, for she is beautiful.” (Genesis 26:7)

There is so much too unpack in this story that. unfolds in six short verses. Some of the most unusual aspects of this short story are the questions the locals pose to Yitzchak regarding his wife, his response (“she’s my sister!”), and the ensuing exchanges (or lack thereof – they didn’t kidnap her unlike they did with Sara), and finally, Avimelech’s (the local King) unusual voyeurism, and strong reaction to what he saw. The classic commentators on the Torah explore this story in a variety of ways including offering explanations into what Avimelech saw happening between Rivka & Yitzchak, and they work hard to understand the general concerns Yitzchak had at the time.

It occurs to me that this story is one that raises for us many important questions regarding community, especially in regards to how we integrate new families into a Jewish community. What should hospitality for new family look like? What should the integration process be, especially now during a pandemic? What are the first questions we ask a new family when they move in? How should spouses interact, and care for each other, when in new social circles? And, most interestingly, what do healthy friendships, and community connections look like?

The Chizkuni comments that the local population had learned an important lesson from a prior guest, who happened to be Yitzchak’s father, and famous for setting the paradigm for hospitality. Avraham challenged the locals to rethink how they looked at guests. After they kidnapped Sara, and perhaps a little determined to fix the mistakes of a destroyed Sodom, Avraham raised for the Phillistines questions over what it means to welcome people into your community. He challenges them to become the hosts he felt they should be (Rule #1 of hosting: do not kidnap your guests).

When Yitzchak and Rivka move into Gerar, it is the first time in history a young couple move into a new community. Though so many of the interactions that ensue are unusual and challenging, this story raises for us, like Avraham raised for the Phillistines, important questions: how do we want to integrate new families into our communities?

These past six months have pushed us to think differently about how we treat each other. It has made us carefully consider the impact we have on each other. And, while it seems that life has come to a standstill in a variety of ways, one of the interesting ways it hasn’t stopped is that people are still moving in and out of communities, and the questions of Avraham apply in a very different way. What does it mean to be a good host? To welcome new people? To notice your new neighbors?

How do we integrate, and connect with new families during these unusual times?

As the children of Avraham we know we have a large, and important mission to welcome every new person who moves into our congregational space.

About the Author
Formerly the Assistant Rabbi of Cong. Ohab Zedek in NYC, and The Hampton Synagogue, Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer is the Rabbi of the growing, young community, Pikesville Jewish Congregation, in Pikesville, MD.
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