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I’m My Own Ancestor

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6 Av 5773 / July 12-13, 2013

Dan Horwitz photo

This week’s portion, Devarim, kicks off the last of the Five Books of Moses.

Most of the book is Moses’s final speech to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land, in which he recaps their travels, battles and the various miracles they witnessed.

One of the most interesting parts of this portion is Moses’s use of language. In particular, he frames his storytelling as: “I did this, and then you (collectively) did that.” What’s strange about his choice of language is that the men he’s addressing were not alive for a good chunk of his historical accounting, and if any of them were, they were under age 20 at the time any of the reported events took place. And yet, he chooses to address the collective as having been present, and as having been responsible for the victories and defeats the nation faced along the way.

I imagine that while the new Israelite generation might have appreciated being lumped in with their parents when their parents did things right, I also have to imagine that they struggled when they were chastised and lumped in with their parents when it came to their parents’ shortcomings.

Can any of us honestly say that we’d be comfortable being held accountable for the faults of our parents?

Why would Moses lump the current generation in with the past one?

Frankly, we shouldn’t be surprised, given the other instances we’ve found of such grouping in the Torah. For example, we should remember that God (as portrayed in the Torah) isn’t always happy and smiling, and is willing to hold children accountable for the sins of their parents:

“You shall not bow down to them [idols] or serve them; for I am a jealous God, punishing the children of those that hate me unto the third and fourth generation.” [paraphrase of Exodus 20:4].

So too, we’re reminded that the Exodus from Egypt did not happen just to/for our ancestors:

“And you shall tell your son on that day: It is because of that which God did for me when I went out from Egypt.” [paraphrase of Exodus 13:8] (sound familiar from Passover?)

We’re meant to view ourselves as having gone out of Egypt and experiencing what our ancestors did, and so too, we’re potentially held accountable for the actions of those who came before us. What gives?

What are the benefits of a collective, cross-generational identity?

Do you think the way we currently act in our lives and communities would be different if we envisioned ourselves as part of a collective — spanning generations — rather than as individuals?

Much has been written about us being part of “Generation Me.” Perhaps for those who came before us, who experienced struggles different (and arguably greater) than our own due to being Jewish, the collective identity piece was a bit stronger…

This week, reflect on your identity and how you view your relationship to others.

Meditate on “kol Yisrael arevim ze la’zeh” – “all Jews are responsible for one another.” Does this concept resonate with you? Why or why not?

Commit to living a life that your children, and theirs after them, will be inspired by; leave a legacy they are anxious to inherit, and a narrative they willingly and joyously adopt as their own.

Shabbat shalom.

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