Hapax Legomena: Shabbat Message by Rabbi Elana Rabishaw

This past Sunday, an inquisitive second grader asked me how many words were in the Torah. Without any idea, I consulted Rabbi Google, who told me that there were just under 80,000 words. Of those, there are nearly 1,500 words that appear in the Torah only once. The fancy name for this phenomenon is “hapax legomena”, but simply put, it means that the rabbis have an especially creative time interpreting the texts of these singularly occurring words.

In this week’s Torah portion, we fall upon a hapax legomena describing what Isaac is doing in the moments before he meets Rebecca.

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים׃

And Isaac went out to _______ in the field toward the evening; and when he lifted his eyes, he saw camels approaching.

Unsurprisingly, the rabbis do not agree on what Isaac was doing in the field. When the rabbis try to understand the passage, there are three general answers. Some rabbis think that Isaac was just walking through a field.Others, like Rashi, taught that Isaac was engaged in some sort of prayer or meditation. Finally, Rashbam believes that Isaac went out into the field in order to plant “useful” vegetation.

What I love about each of these understandings of the text is that they do not have to be mutually exclusive. As the saying goes, it is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Many see strolling or gardening as meditative activities, where the mind and body can work harmoniously in service of the soul. Isaac could have been praying, walking, and farming all at the same time, and each action can be enhanced by the others. In so many ways, being able to see multiple perspectives simultaneously is one of the core lessons of Judaism.

We learn from the rabbis of the Talmud the value of preserving all opinions within a conversation. From the very first Talmudic questions, there are answers from specific rabbis and the majority rabbinic opinion. When we can hear multiple options, and honor them, we put ourselves in a position to see new things from a new perspective.

One of the things I love most about Temple Beth El is that we are a community open to hearing things from new perspectives. In a few weeks we will have the third installment of our antisemitism series. We have heard from author Dara Horn, and Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL. Next, we will have Amb. David Friedman, former US Ambassador to Israel. Each sees the world differently. And yet, they all have a place on our Bima, an opportunity to share their unique point of view about antisemitism.

As a series, these three speakers provide us with fuel to have a more nuanced conversation. Even if we do not agree with each other, this allows us to remember that we all have the shared goal of living as Jews in the world at large.

At Temple Beth El, everything we do is toinspire a passionate commitment to Jewish life, learning, community and spiritual growth.”

For some, this means walking their children into our beautiful Beck Family Campus. Others are committed to building Jewish community through their involvement in a chavurah or a circle. We are so blessed to have so many ways to engage with each other, that it is only natural to gravitate in a specific direction. While we might focus on learning, or prayer, or communal service, or social gatherings, these do not have to be mutually exclusive. The more we engage, the deeper our connection can be to Judaism and each other.

As someone new to the clergy team coming in with fresh eyes, I have been in awe of the diversity of ideas, programs, and people at Temple Beth El. I am grateful that this is my home. I look forward to having you join me in sanctifying my installation this Shabbat.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

Blessed Are You, Holy One, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this moment.

Shabbat Shalom,

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