My Family Tree
One day, when I was a child, my father came home with a huge rolled up piece of paper. Some of his relatives were keen genealogists who had researched their family history and drawn a family tree. We opened it out on the dining table and looked for people we recognised. At the bottom we found my father and my grandparents. Nearby we found friends we didn’t know we were related to. Higher up, my father found some famous Rabbis. And, to my amazement, at the top we found King David, and Avraham, and other biblical figures I had learned about in school.
I was excited to learn that we were actually related to people in the Torah. My father replied that most Jewish people are too. But to me, seeing each link in the chain made it more tangible. My father often wrote about our connection to our past. He taught that “Judaism is a religion of memory” and “Memory is different from history. History is someone else’s story. It’s about events that occurred long ago to someone else. Memory is my story. It’s about where I come from and of what narrative I am a part.” Seeing myself in the same family tree as Avraham made me realise that as well as being related to Torah characters, we are, each of us, characters in the same story, and the story has not yet ended.
My father felt this strongly. Born a few weeks before the establishment of the modern State of Israel, he knew that he was living in times of historic significance, and that we all have a part to play in the Jewish story. This week’s parsha says that every year after the Israelites settle in Israel, they should bring their first-fruits to the priests and recite the story that brought them there, from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Israel. These could be two separate commandments – bringing new fruits to the priests, and remembering our story – why combine them? Perhaps it is to remind the people that growing fruit in Israel is itself part of the story.
The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.
A Closer Look
Josh Sacks now shares some of the deeper ideas he learnt from Rabbi Sacks.
Which idea expressed in this week’s piece do you think is the most important message for the next generation?
People often tell me about the things they learned from my father. Even a few days ago, someone I had just met told me that the idea he always remembers is that we view our history differently to some other groups of people. Some groups define themselves by historic events, whether glorious or catastrophic. Whereas in Judaism we don’t define ourselves solely by our past, we remember the past and use it to help navigate our future. As my father wrote, “Remember the past, but do not be held captive by it”.
Perhaps one reason we Jews have kept our identity over thousands of years is that our story isn’t limited to one time or one place. When we moved to different countries, we were not leaving the Jewish story, instead we were starting new chapters.
Some have suggested that in our modern society, personal identity is not linked to family history; all that matters is the individual’s achievements and associations. On the other hand, what did the BBC choose to call its long-running series on people tracing their family trees? ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’
This week’s piece discusses the mitzva of people bringing new fruit to the Temple and remembering the events that led to that moment, and then thanking God. But we no longer have the Temple. So how can I do something similar to this, when I reach an achievement in my own life?
You could say the shehecheyanu blessing. Its translation is: Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time.