Up until this week’s portion, the Israelites are generally referred to as “b’nei Yisrael,” the Children of Israel. Only once had we been called, “beit Yisrael,” the House of Israel. It is with the completion of the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary, that the people are generally called beit Yisrael, the House of Israel. We have been transformed from a people who share a common history, to a group of people who now share a common destiny. While we may disagree on things, even important things such as the building of the Golden Calf, or whether or not to follow a rebellion (stayed tuned for parshat Korakh), we are tied by a bond of community.
But why is the change from “people” to “house” significant? Perhaps the word beit, “house of, ” highlights the relationship between the beginning and the end of Exodus. In both places the Jewish people are building great buildings of religious significance. In the beginning of Exodus, Pharaoh enslaves the Jews to build his pyramids. Rabbi Bruce Kadden comments that beit signifies a permanence of place that the word b’nei simply cannot. By creating a building, we establish ourselves in the world during our own time.
It is important to note that most significant Jewish institutions are “houses”: beit sefer, a school; beit knesset, a synagogue, and beit midrash, a house of study. Many synagogues choose to use “beit” in the name of their congregation, thereby creating a chain leading all the way back to the time of Solomon. Indeed synagogues have an ark representing the Mishkan, a bimah representing the altar of sacrifice, a menorah, and an eternal light, all of which help create that chain to our history. The prayer service itself is also drawn from the daily schedule of sacrifices offered in the Temple.
Perhaps the word “beit” is significant because the term “house” suggests permanence throughout the generations, throughout time. We move from one generation to the next, we are born and we die, but a building can live on. We may add additions, knock it down and rebuild, but the foundation remains. There is a link in this portion which connects it all the way back to creation. The root of the word vayak’hel, used here to signify the completion of the Mishkan, is also used in Genesis 2:2 to mark the end of God’s creation.
Brevard Childs, a modern biblical scholar, notes that in Exodus we often see beit used to mean a clan, a family structure. So perhaps this change from b’nei to beit is about a change of life, the change from the individuality of slavery to the family structure that is embodied in the word “home.” This is the change from youth to adulthood. It is a life cycle event for the Jewish people. In The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, Aviva Zornberg writes, “The ‘house’ is the place of sexuality, of momentary unions and abiding tension, a place where two partners, fiery substance, are connected by the presence of God.”
In my own life, my path toward marriage and family was launched as my then-fiancée Jen and I began to create our new home together, our new holy space. In that process, we made the change from individuality to community, from youth to adulthood, from single to partnered, and from being one generation of a family to beginning our own new family together. That transition marked the beginning of our journey not as b’nei, as individual members in a community, but as beit, as a family unit.
This parsha concludes with Moses working alone to establish the Mishkan. He then calls beit Yisrael together for the anointing of Aaron and the other priests. So we end Exodus not as b’nei Yisrael, but rather as beit Yisrael. This transformation that we see in Exodus teaches us how to grow and shape ourselves during our journey through life. As families, we evolve from living as individuals to living together, our lives forever intertwined. On a larger scale, synagogue communities must strive to take individual families, whatever their makeup may be, and craft them into a beit kedushah, a house of holiness.