“Do you know who my parents are?”
Even in our nominally classless society, this question resonates, and in certain contexts, can inspire a bit of terror. It is all too common to encounter someone who tries to bully us with his or her ancestry! A wonderful Hasidic commentary on this week’s parashah offers a powerful response to that sense of dynastic entitlement.
The beginning of the book of Bamidbar describes an Israelite census taken in the wilderness by Moses with the help of tribal leaders. Ish—rosh le-veit avotav hu, says the Torah; each of the leaders was the head of his clan. Based on this verse, Rabbi Yosef Potzanovsky tells the story of man from a distinguished family who was angry at a young scholar from an unremarkable family. The former said, “You have the nerve to challenge me, when I have lineage and you have none!?” The young scholar replied, “But your family’s distinction may end with you, while my family’s will begin with me.”
This, said Rabbi Potzanovsky, is the true meaning of Ish—rosh le-veit avotav hu, taking the word “rosh” to mean “beginning.” Each person represents a new beginning of a family line, a chance for either renewal or decline. All of us—no matter what our lineage—can earn respect for our families. But if we feel entitled because of our family name, we will eventually dishonor it, no matter how splendid it was.
This is a beautiful message for Shavuot as well. If we don’t accept the Torah anew, we become a dead end; if we do, we have the chance to be rosh le-veit avoteinu: entrusted with a sacred heritage, blessed with the chance to renew it.
Shabbat shalom and hag sameah,
Rabbi Jonathan Berger
Associate Head of School for Judaic Studies and Programs
Questions for the Shabbat/Holiday table:
- What values does your family stand for? Which of those do you see as the most important ones to pass forward?
- How can you use Shavuot as a chance to re-accept the Torah, and pass it forward?