“These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph already being in Egypt.” (Shmot 1:1-5)
Seventy members of a family, arriving at a place to reunite with the one far-flung son, hoping to begin anew.
I just spent the week with a whole houseful of cousins, all descended from one man George, and his beloved Nancy. George died this summer, and, as he was one of my husband’s favorite cousins (mine too) we went down to DC for a memorial/reunion. It was wonderful. Granted, we all missed George dearly, but to hear so many people talk so beautifully about this really remarkable fellow, it was wonderful. George was impressive – not just all his accomplishments, of which there were many, but the impressions he made on all who knew him. Colleagues, cousins, and most poignantly, from the grandchildren. From here on, for future generations, the stories about George will be told and retold, cementing who he was and what he stood for.
The clan that arrived in Egypt was one family: uncles and aunts, cousins, cousins, cousins. Perhaps they had heard stories about the uncle who had disappeared, presumed dead. Perhaps once united, the families sat around and told more and more stories, cementing who they were and what they stood for.
When the new kind arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph, and how he had helped the Egyptian nation, that new king enslaved the people of Joseph, the Israelites. It went on for 400 years, forging an entire nation in a crucible of slavery. Yet every day, in our liturgy, we recall that personal connection, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah and Rebecca and Rachel and Leah. Family becomes community becomes a nation. What connected that group of wanderers is still what connects us today. Many commentators have written that this first parasha of the book of Exodus is the transition between being a clan and becoming a people. The faith of Genesis was a personal faith; the faith of Exodus is a national one. But the faith is based on the stories, the families, the community.
We’ve been telling all these stories all year, every year, for thousands of years. It started with family, with cousins. This last week, we talked a lot about religion and humanism and history and politics, and “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” It’s that kind of family, so if you know me, you know I was pretty happy to marry into this group. Ultimately, we disagreed on some major issues, agreed on others, laughed, loved, cried and flourished under the conversations and the cardgames. The power of the stories told about George this week, will continue to be told, and that’s what’s important. God, no God, Jewish practice, Jewish identity of all kinds, the stories will always tell us who we are and what we stand for.