Jewish roots: To know where you’re going, know where you are from

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz

By Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vaeira (Exodus 6:2−9:35)

Where are you from?  I am asked this question often as: one, I don’t have the perfect Chicago accent and, two, it is rather unusual for a pulpit Rabbi to work in the community in which they were born and raised.  

“Where are you from?” is really a question that should concern all of us.  It is not merely a geographical issue; it is also an ancestral issue.  Knowing about your personal background allows you to understand more about yourself and the possibilities for your future.  As one unknown writer wrote:  “You can’t know where you are going until you know where you have been.”  This is very true in Jewish life.  We are in the midst of reading about the plagues and, next week, will read about the Exodus from Egypt.  Due to our past enslavement in Egypt and liberation from bondage we have a responsibility to work on behalf of the freedom for all.  Thirty-six times in the Torah we are reminded that we were strangers in the land of Egypt.  Therefore, we have an ongoing obligation to take care of the strangers in our midst.  On a personal family level, four times a year we recite the Yizkor memorial prayers reminding us of our responsibility to remember those who have passed away.

When Moses’ birth was chronicled in last week’s Torah portion, the text omitted any description of his lineage, simply informing us that “And a certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.”  In this week’s Torah portion that omission is addressed.  G-d commands Moses to return to Pharaoh and again demand the release of the Israelite slaves.  The Torah then abruptly digresses to present the genealogical table listing the descendents of Jacob’s older sons, Reuven, Shimon, and Levi.  The listing includes the detailed description of the lineage of Moses’ and Aaron’s family within the tribe of Levi.  Upon completion of the genealogical record, the Torah returns to the narrative of the Exodus.

Why wasn’t Moses’ lineage mentioned earlier and why is it mentioned at this point?  Rabbi Shmuel Goldin suggests that “the glaring omission of Moses’ ancestry in Parshat Shmot serves to remind us that the most important aspects of our lives are self-determined.  While G-d decides to whom we are born, when and where we are born, our genetic make-up, etc., we determine through our own free will, who we will become.”  Therefore, Moses’ parentage does not necessarily determine the quality of his life.

On the other hand, he continues, “while pedigree is neither the sole nor the most important determinant of a person’s character, an individual’s family background certainly contributes to the formation of that character.  Our ancestry creates the backdrop against which we weave the tapestry of our lives.”  Therefore, Moses’s story would have been incomplete if we did not know the values that his forebearers transferred to him.

Knowing where you come from is a central focus of knowing who you are and what is your task in life.  In the last few years, two American political figures found out that they had Jewish parentage which was unknown to them throughout most of their lifetime.  Hamilton Jordan was President Jimmy Carter’s advisor and Chief of Staff.  While Jordan died in 2008, we know the story of his life through a book which was edited by his daughter from a manuscript he had written.

Though Jordan was a good ol’ Southern boy, at the cemetery service for his maternal grandmother, Helen, he was puzzled to discover her plot was nestled alongside that of a Jewish family.  At 20 years of age, he did a bit of digging revealing that his beloved grandmother was Jewish.  She had married his Baptist grandfather in the years immediately preceding the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, in a South that viewed Jews as unacceptably different.  His own mother would never speak of her Jewish roots.

In the latter part of his life his children suggested that he speak to his Uncle to find out what had happened.  After he did so, according to his daughter Kathleen, he spent the rest of his life trying to connect with the Jewish community.  He was baptized Baptist, the family grew up Episcopalian, but culturally he was drawn to his Jewish roots.  Kathleen reports that, “it had an impact on his relationship to the civil rights movement, I think it made it personal for him.”

The other person was the former Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, Madeleine Albright, who discovered at age 59, through the reporting of a Washington Post journalist, that she was born to Jewish parents.  Though an Episcopalian who was raised as a Catholic, she found out that more than a dozen of her family members died in the Holocaust, including three grandparents in concentration camps. Her father, a former Czech diplomat, and her mother, never told her the family secret.

In her book ‘Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948,’ she writes of her digging through a trove of untouched documents that her parents left behind, visiting her childhood neighborhoods in the Czech Republic and tracing the stories of her family.

When asked who she really was, she stated:  “I am very proud of my Czechoslovak background, but my identity the way I describe it now is:  I am an American, I am a mother, I am a grandmother, I am a Democrat, I came from Jewish heritage, I was a Roman Catholic, I am a practicing Episcopalian, I am somebody who is devoted to human rights, I am someone who believes in an international community and I can’t separate those things … I can trace these various parts as having a profound influence on me in one form or another.”  

Albright’s daughter married into a Jewish family and her youngest grandson had a Bar Mitzvah.  She said that “as he was preparing for it, the family was talking about the various Jewish traditions, the appreciation for history, for family, for humanity, for education.”  She believes the person she is was affected by her Jewish ancestry.

For most of us, the stories are not as dramatic.  We know about our past.  The search for our ancestors,  genealogical research, has become commonplace in our day and age.  But, it is not enough to stop there.  We must take the past and use it for the present and the future.  

In the beginning of the third chapter of Pirkei Avot we are told by Akaviah ben Mahalal’el:  “Ponder three things and you avoid falling into sin:  know your origin, your destination, and for whom you require to give an accounting.”  In other words, know where you have been, where you are going, and your purpose in life.  

Moses had a very complicated upbringing.  Sent off by his mother at three months of age, he was raised by an Egyptian princess in Pharaoh’s court.  It was only later that he learned of his origin and his complicated ancestry.  Once he did, his life changed.  While his ancestry was important, and therefore placed in our Torah reading of this week, he had to make his own journey.

So it is with us.  We should acknowledge from whence we come and appreciate it.  We should also remember, as James Baldwin wrote, “If you know from whence you come, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”  This is our continuing challenge:  to know the past, to work in the present, and to create a better future.

Where are you from?  Where are you today?  And, where are you going?  I hope we can answer all those questions appropriately and make a difference in our world.

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is rabbi of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El (Conservative).

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