Legacy and Destiny
Parashat Bamidbar 2016
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Legacy and Destiny
There are two Midrashim that discuss the circumstances under which the Torah was given at Shavuot. Each story places a radically different emphasis. Listen to them both and tell me what stands out for you.
The Torah was given to the people of Israel in the ownerless desert. For if it were given in the Land of Israel, the residents of the Land of Israel would say, “It is ours”; and if it were given in some other place, the residents of that place would say, “It is ours.” Therefore it was given in the wilderness, so that anyone who wishes to acquire it may acquire it.Mechilta d’Rashbi
Rabbi Meir said: When the Jews stood before Sinai to receive the Torah, God said to them: "I swear, I will not give you the Torah unless you provide worthy guarantors who will assure that you will observe its laws."The Jews responded, "Master of the world, our forefathers will be our guarantors!""Your guarantors themselves require guarantors!" was God's reply."Master of the world," the Jews exclaimed, "our prophets will guarantee our observance of the Torah.""I have grievances against them, too... Bring proper guarantors and only then will I give you the Torah."As a last resort, the Jews declared, "our children will serve as our guarantors!""They truly are worthy guarantors," God replied. "Because of them I will give the Torah."Midrash Rabbah, Song of Songs 1:4
What are the differences of note between these two accounts?
We rabbis tend to have their hobby horses. My hobby horse is the idea that we choose our Judaism, regardless of our Jewish background. How we in the modern world are called to participate in a marketplace of ideas. How we are all ‘Jews-by-Choice’ in an open world where the walls of the ghetto came down a long time ago. And, of course, at Shavu’ot, I turn up the volume on this narrative. Shavuot is the perennial Festival of Choice: the choice to accept Torah in our lives, the choice that Ruth the Moabite made to join our people.
I stand by everything I argue for passionately but it’s not the only story. The two Midrashim reflect that complexity. The first Midrash is all about choice: the Torah was given in the wilderness as a measure of maximum democracy, accessibility and inclusivity. Torah should be a level playing-field.
But the second Midrash tells a different story. It’s the story of continuity, inheritance, lineage and legacy. It is not us – the generation who do the choosing – who are the guarantors of Torah, but our children, the inheritors of the very tradition we shape.
There’s a Jewish term for this idea of legacy, continuity and lineage. It’s called ‘yichus’. We might use the term colloquially to refer to someone’s family background and in more traditional communities, the term is used to denote a type of Jewish near-aristocracy: it is said in these communities, that people who have ‘impeccable’ yichus might come from distinguished rabbinical families, might be the descendants of Kohanim, the priestly class, or other families of note. Yichus, at its most problematic, is the Jewish equivalent of nobility.
If that makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s about to get worse. One of the few times I walked out during my studies in rabbinical school (don’t worry, I walked back in!) was when we studied the Talmudic tractate Kiddushin. Kiddushin concerns itself with questions of marriage, and by extension, status. There’s a mishnah that opens with ‘asarah yochasin alu mi’Bavel’ – ‘Ten lineages went up from the Babylonian Exile’ (Chapter 4, mishnah 1). The Mishnah proceeds to categorise a hierarchy of ten classes of Jews, from Kohanim to your bog-standard Israelites, to mamzerim, converts, slaves and foundlings and then states who may and may not marry each other.
It’s a very controversial piece of text that rubs our faces into an ethnically-essentialist Judaism that is obsessed with lineage, and that is elitist, hierarchical and exclusivist.
However, that is one extreme. Yichus doesn’t need to be about exclusivity or whispers of ‘so, what’s your family name?’ It certainly doesn’t need to be condemned to the underbelly of Judaism. At its best, yichus refers to family continuity and the inheritance of Torah we bequeath to our children. Never mind our own sense of choosing: through educating our children in the Jewish community, through raising our children with a Jewish identity, we make a choice for them too, and that’s OK. That’s our prerogative and our obligation as parents. In the best case scenario, yichus is the vector through which we pass on identity, values, traditions, culture and a deep, abiding, intergenerational love. It can give us a sense of grounding in a world that can feel depersonalised.
This week’s Torah reading is Bamidbar – meaning ‘in the wilderness’. Like the wilderness of our first Midrash, the parashah gives us a sense of implicit choice. Could it be that the Israelites felt unhinged, lost, intimidated? Maybe they felt unsure of who they were in this land of unpredictable possibilities. And what do they do in response to the challenge of the wilderness? They count themselves. They set up banners, lineages, identity markers.
‘Se’u et rosh kol adat B’nei Yisrael lemishpechotam lebeit avotam b’mispar shemot kol zachar legulgoltam’ – ‘Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names of all the males, head by head’. (Num. 1:2).
What happens next is that each tribe is divided and subdivided by house, family, banner, symbol. This division wasn’t arbitrary, it was according ‘lemishpechotam’ – ‘to their families’. The Israelites go back to the most basic family unit to give them a sense of self and purpose. Yes, there is a lot about the notion of inherited status that can and does and should make us feel profoundly uncomfortable. We should always advocate a position of choice, openness and inclusivity. At the same time, we cannot deny the powerful vectors that heritage and family are – to educate, transmit, bequeath and love.
When we are in the wilderness of a world that seems to offer us a myriad of conflicting and confusing choices, it is the warm stability of Jewish family life that is our guarantor. Embracing that role for our families is an active and uplifting choice. Giving a strong identity to our children, a sense of belonging, of tradition and of dignity, ledor vador, from generation to generation, is perhaps one of the most powerful ways we can honour our own moment of choosing at Sinai.