HomeFebruary 2016Ancestral Memories

Ancestral Memories

0216ldorvdor“Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments …” so that you remember. (Numbers 15:38)

“The Jewish concept of generations has always played a prominent role,” writes Rabbi Berel Wein. “We are bidden to procreate and create generations, whether through actual biological children, students and disciples, intellectual works and contributions or memories carried on by friends and colleagues.”

Our Torah is filled with names of the generations—connecting people and their families to the biblical story of humanity. We can either consider it as an attempt to provide an “historical” account of the lineage of our people—or, as I like to view it, as the importance of recognizing the concept of “l’dor v’dor”—passing our heritage from one generation to the next so that we remain connected through a universal memory.

Jews are a people of memory. We are commanded to remember in the Torah and our shared history binds us together. Our stories, rituals and teachings, serve to connect us to each other—regardless of where we live. One aspect of these teachings and rituals is the reason behind them. If they are missing, the teachings and rituals become meaningless.

The Torah instructs us to remember Shabbat, to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, and our liturgy reflects that as well. Consider the Amidah—the central prayer to be recited three (sometimes four) times each day. It begins with blessing our ancestors.

The very simple definition of ancestors is, “the ones who have preceded us … typically one more remote than a grandparent, from whom one is descended.” While the most obvious of them are the biological ones, for Jews, our “patriarchs” and “matriarchs” are our ancestors as well.

The Shabbat blessings over children, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh” and  “May G-d make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah” remind us of the value of passing Judaism on from one generation to the next—and remembering.

The importance of remembering history cannot be over emphasized.  In Jewish tradition we are asked to remember the positive as well the negative events in our history. As a matter of fact, one could say that one of the Jewish contributions to society is “an insistence on the importance of remembering history and finding meaning in it. After all, ancient Israel regarded history as so important they made a record of it in their sacred scriptures.  The Sages “sought to explore the meaning of this history and interpret it in terms that they and future generations could use in the ongoing development of Jewish life.” Today we read these writings and continue to find meaning in their messages.

Knowing our past extends not just to familiarity with societal events, but to our familial history as well. While genealogical research had been around for centuries, it received a tremendous boost with the 1977 broadcast of “Roots,” the television series about the history of an African American family.  People were galvanized to learn about their own ancestors.

In my own family, many of us began constructing family trees using memories garnered from stories our parents and grandparents told us. For many who are second or third generation of those who immigrated to the United States, we have little understanding of the hardships they endured to make a better life for their children and grandchildren. I remember the stories my father told of the terror of a pogrom in his Russian town of Neshem, and of his amazement the first time he saw an indoor toilet on the grounds of the army officer who was protecting them until they could leave for the US. But even those, whose families have lived here for many generations, often have only a vague perception of the past.

In an article in The American Conservative, Associate Editor Gracy Olmstead wrote about a recent Thanksgiving family dinner in her hometown.  She recalled enjoying several long visits with her grandfathers. “One is a retired farmer, the other a WWII veteran. One tells stories of battles past, seeing friends die, watching countries battle brutally. The other shared stories of work and service in community, speaking of a time when people relied on each other for support and sustenance. Both have lived through the Great Depression and numerous wars. Both have lost many of their friends and loved ones. Their world is tinged with tragedy and hardship in a way mine has never been—yet hearing their stories gives me a deeper understanding of the world.”

Olmstead adds that without a clear perspective of the past, “we lose a correct interpretation of the world… and we don’t have the background or context necessary to understand our own world rightly.”

While we may seek to learn about past generations, in Jewish tradition “we are accountable to succeeding generations as well,” writes Rabbi Wein. “… the wisdom of King Solomon taught us that ‘generations leave and generations come but the world remains forever’—so the task to build the world physically, spiritually and socially always remains. It is the primary challenge of all generations for all time. It is also the never changing challenge that taxes our existence and makes no compromise in its demands upon us.” This is a lesson inherent in our tradition and one that we need to pass on to future generations.

Source: My Jewish Leanring.com 

Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.

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