I don’t know your histories. Some of you are people who I have known since my pre-historic teen years. Others are people I met a month or so ago. One of the many things that you share is that none of you (at least as far as I know) are stuck. You don’t live the same day again and again. Some of you have made radical life choices. You are almost unrecognizable from who you were in what feels like a previous life (That’s you in the football uniform? In the sari? In the cockpit?). Others have made choices that are far less visible but arguably equally as dramatic (That’s you in the back with the almost tznius skirt? That’s you when you lived in Winnipeg? In Detroit? In Williamsburg?).
You are Avraham’s children, and as you know, he left everything behind him to become the man Hashem wanted him to be. The choices that Yitzchak made in his lifetime are no less significant than the ones that Avraham made. The easiest choice, the one he didn’t make, would have been to be Avraham the Second. Instead, he began carving out his unique destiny by becoming himself. Avraham brought true emunah into the world, and expressed his love of Hashem by bringing awareness of His presence into the world both by his teachings and by his example of what chessed really means. Yitzchak didn’t re-discover the wheel. He took emunah to another place, and developed his inner devotion to Hashem to the point that our collective capacity for self-sacrifice is the flowers that bloomed from the seeds that he planted. Ramchal speaks of the times in which the Patriarchs and Matriarchs lived as the era of the “roots”, to use his words.
We are the branches, leaves and flowers that come from those roots.
I overheard a conversation on the way home from shul Friday night. The speakers were young men (in their teens or early twenties), and I could trace their accents to the wilds of the tri-state area. “Things here are so different! I couldn’t get over all of the succos in the streets. But even Yom Kippur was different?” ”How? Doesn’t everyone back home also go to shul? Aren’t the words in the machzor basically the same?” “That’s the difference. Back home, everyone goes to shul.”
That’s the mission. Once you are there, it’s mission accomplished. It doesn’t matter whether you pray, space out, or take breaks and chill. As long as you are there. Everyone dresses in really expensive clothes, and that’s the scene. The main thing is that you actually show up. Here, I actually saw someone cry during the tefillah. I was blown away”.
What moved me most in this dialogue wasn’t the tefillah of the man who wept. It was the fact that so many people who clearly don’t have all that much depth in their understanding of what tefillah is and what Yom Kippur can do, still ‘show up”. They have something of Avraham’s faith that drives them forward. They also, no doubt, are descendants of people who were willing to give anything they had to remain Jewish. You may very reasonably ask how I know this about some anonymous young man’s ancestors. The fact that he is Jewish means that sacrifice was in his bones. He either came from people who lived in Eastern European ghettos, or suffered in indignity of being “dhammi”, the Mideastern word for being third class citizens. They may have lived underground and under threat, like the Persian Jews of Meshad.
Leaving everything behind isn’t easy, nor is what most of us will ever be called upon to do. When you look at your “past life”, there are two ways to go. One is being so to speak “reborn”. This means, in essence, saying “this is who I was, not who I am. There is no past”. I have a friend who grew up in America’s heartland, where Jews are seldom seen, and are not part of the “societal backdrop”. Her mom bought matzah for Pesach, and that was enough for her to think of her family as religious. Her Dad’s job in sales demanded a great deal of mobility. She saw the country from sea to shining sea in small installments. There were stops-along-the-way. One was in the Big Apple, N.Y. When people in Monsey, her present home, asked her where she is from originally, she goes into denial mode. She is not her past. It’s dead, and she likes it that way. She says, “Boro Park”. When I asked her (in my subtle refined way, “HUH?”) She told me that they had spent some time in Brooklyn when her father was trying to close a contract with a Jewish importer, and she had been to Boro Park numerous times. I didn’t push her further. She is, for all intents and purposes, a person who has chosen to live a life that began at 22, when Hashem’s providence somehow got her to Neve. She fits in, her kids fit in, and for her that is enough.
The other way to relate to having a life that has both a part one and a part two is integration. Another friend has a completely different attitude towards Part One. Photos of her parents, grandparents, and various other people from There, decorate the corner of her living room over the piano. They don’t look like the people from Part Two. Her married son’s wedding pictures are replete with in-laws who look like the gedolei torah that they are. Pictures of Rabbanim grace the area over the dining room. Every so often she tells her guests an anecdote or two about her childhood. Her parent’s generosity, their love of tradition and their connection to the Jewish people are, to her, stops along the way to where she is now, not an entirely different journey. She makes no secret of this that she finds their lives to be a source of inspiration, although she would never deny the tragedy of their ignorance. Her friends usually pick up her attitude, which opens their hearts to understanding people whose lives are so limited by their ignorance and society that they have to be judged on an entirely different scale. They learn to do that, and see a world that is far more multidimensional than the world that they are used to. Some of her friends don’t get it. She takes the patronization/curiosity with a grain of salt and moves on.
For Avraham this sort of integration wasn’t possible. His father, Terach, wasn’t well meaning but clueless. He lived in a world that was steeped in idol worship, and he was actively involved. Avraham stood alone, more alone than anything you or I can even imagine. Hashem told him to head for the land where, I will show you yourself”. He chose to do so, and became someone from who virtually everyone in today’s world who can have any claim to genuine belief in one G-d (and with that recognition of accountability, basic morality and much more), has a heavy debt to someone who had the courage to move on. If you would have asked him where he came from, perhaps the answer would have been Chevron or Beersheva. He would not be lying. That’s where he became himself.