In our parashah, the phrase: “Beit Yisrael”, the House of Israel appears for only the second time in the entire Torah. The first was in regard to the manna, where the Torah tells us that, not knowing what it was, “the House of Israel” called it “man”, that is, “what’s this?” Is there a common denominator in these two cases, or is this merely a coincidental quirk of style? I believe that not only is there something in common between these two appearances, but that the commonality has much to teach us.
The rabbis of the Talmud sought to anchor Purim in the Biblical tradition, with varying degrees of success. But one of the most striking rabbinic comments appears in a surprising place: in Massechet Shabbat, we find a curious reference to the events on which Purim is based: “’The Jews confirmed and accepted’—on that occasion they confirmed what they had accepted long before.” What exactly, did the Jews living in the Persian exile accept?
Self-fulfilling prophecies are often crucial to the birth of a people. When Jews bless their sons on Friday night, they say, “May you be like Ephraim and like Menashe”. Why not “like Avraham, Yitzkhak, and Yakov”? After all, we bless our daughters that they be like the four matriarch’s: Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah, so why not bless our sons that they be like the patriarchs? Why Ephraim and Menashe?
Shavuot is one of the three Pilgrimage Holidays mandated by the Torah, and yet the text tells us very little about the holiday or how it is to be observed. Even the date on which it is celebrated is left undefined. Instead, Shavuot is described only by reference to what came before it. The nature of the holiday became the subject of intense debate among rival factions during the Second Temple era.
In fact, this controversy was part of a much larger debate which threatened to split the Jewish nation along sectarian lines. The split hinged on a major difference of opinion over the nature of Jewish society and its foundation texts: Is the Torah a fixed text, unchangeable for all time, or is it a living document meant to be reinterpreted in the light of changing circumstances?
Lag b’Omer’s rising popularity and increasing religious attribution is a good indicator of how holidays evolve in our national consciousness. We seek meaning, and if meaning is lacking, we draw on our collective memory of transformation to supply it.
Why have Christian countries not mounted rescue missions to airlift besieged Christians out of danger zones, as Israel did for the Yemenite, Iraqi, and Ethiopian Jewish communities?
In fact, this is the wrong question: solidarity movements like this are the exception, not the rule. The correct question is not why there is such a lack of Christian solidarity—but rather, why did such a movement arise among Jews?