Finding the Answer Differently

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

As teachers soon discover, there is a lot to learn from your students. The very vocal and informed Jewish study group, which I founded and teach twice a month at my home to about twenty people, is now in its fourth year of existence. This past week we began to examine the tension between the original 1948 Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, (embodying democratic principles similar to those of the U.S.), and the new Nation State Declaration (proclaiming the uniqueness of Israel as the historic homeland of the Jews).

There are 11 clauses in the new Declaration. Following delicious refreshments for Succoth (a happy festival representing the harvest), and after considerable historical preamble, we managed to get through clause 1-A. As I said, my study group – which includes people, of various ages born in the U.S., Canada, Israel, Argentina, Chile, Europe, and elsewhere — depending on who is present or visiting that day – is very vocal. There are lots of opinions and lots of diverse and often fascinating knowledge.

The Ten Days of Awe, representing the holiest days of the Jewish year and preceding Sukkoth, have so recently been with us. We have liturgically chanted the sacred Hebrew refrain long inscribed in the Jewish collective memory, in our prayer books, and hopefully our practice: “Tefillah, teshuvah, tsedakah.”  It is usually translated in English as “Prayer, Repentance, Charity,” long-standing tenets of the Jewish people Sometimes teshuvah is translated as “return, homecoming,“ symbolizing return, not only to God, but also to the Promised Land, Israel. We refer to someone who has returned to the tenets of Judaism as a Ba’al Teshuvah (Master of Repentance).

However, during my class, one of my students, an Israeli, informed me that teshuvah has a different meaning in the secular Israel of today. It is commonly used to mean “answer,” she said. We checked the translation of teshuvah in two dictionaries, one used for Torah, Tenakh and Talmud and the other for modern Hebrew. Sure enough, there are two meanings recorded in both dictionaries: “Return, repentance” is the primary meaning, and “answer” is the secondary usage.

I suppose if you choose to live in the Diaspora, as “exiled” Jews were forced to do for centuries  — that is, until the founding of the modern State of Israel gave us back our long-lost home — it makes sense to be repenting for your sins and praying at Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur for “return” to the Holy Land. But If you live in Israel, you have found the answer: You are already there. (Unless, of course, you choose to leave Israel and make your home in the U.S., as so many Israelis have done. And then you can teach your American teacher what teshuvah means – not in the prayer book, but in Israel.)

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.