Remembrance, bond and blessing

Thoughts on parashat Behar-Bechukotai

Menachem Mirski

Difficult times come cyclically in our lives. One of such experiences is the death of a loved one. We feel powerless then, because we cannot bring anyone back to life. The closer this person was to us, the closer that persons’ „spiritual presence” later in our life – the more our consciousness is preoccupied with this person. This state of mind prompts us to reflect in various ways: we analyze the objective reasons that caused that person’s departure; we analyze our own actions, potential negligence on our part that could have an impact on the course of things – that is, we examine our conscience. The subject of our reflections is, of course, that very person: his/her life decisions, actions, mistakes and achievements, and our assessment of all this and our role in it.

This week’s Torah portion takes this topic from a specific angle – from the perspective of people’s collective, intergenerational responsibility for the reality that future generations inherit:

Those of you who survive shall be heartsick over their iniquity in the land of your enemies; more, they shall be heartsick over the iniquities of their fathers; and they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, in that they trespassed against Me, yea, were hostile to Me. When I, in turn, have been hostile to them and have removed them into the land of their enemies, then at last shall their obdurate heart humble itself, and they shall atone for their iniquity. (Leviticus 26:39-41)

The Torah language is quite harsh here. This is because the Torah speaks of the foretold, tragic situation of Israel, which as a result of disobedience to God’s Law suffered all sorts of misfortunes: plagues, diseases, wars, and ultimately expulsion from the Promised Land. However, I believe that there is a more abstract idea behind these words: we are the heirs of our ancestors in every dimension. Not only of our immediate ancestors, but also the ancestors of our human society in the national dimension. Our starting position in life is determined by the life position of our parents at the time we were born. Their position was determined by the multitude of decisions they made over the years, but also by the social reality in which they lived (this was determined by the decisions and fate of the entire community, nation, etc.) and by the life position of their parents at the moment they were born, and so on.

Thus, we live in a world that is the aftermath of the decisions and actions of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. The boundaries of what we can do here and now are therefore determined not only by the freedoms of other people who live in our society, but also by the decisions and actions of our ancestors, because they, to a large extent, decided about the shape of the world that we came to live in. These are the boundaries of our freedom in its social and practical dimension – our freedom is limited by a number of human factors independent of us. Nevertheless, if we understand our freedom in a metaphysical way – i.e. we choose to believe that we have an inherent, ‘essential freedom’, that is not dependent on our current diagnosis of what is practically achievable for us at the moment (which always contains arbitrary or even blatantly false elements), then many of these practical or social limitations cease to exist. The only factors that will then limit our freedom will be our finite time/space limited nature and our imagination. Then various prospects of a profound transformation or renewal of our life / restoration of our relationship with the Eternal open up before us:

Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land. (Leviticus 26:42)

God renews His covenant with us because of the just deeds of our ancestors. Then – everything is (again) possible, because what once has become a fact can certainly be repeated. However, to make everything renewed and possible again, two fundamental conditions must be met: First, we must be able to detach our mind from what is here and now, and to challenge our diagnosis of what is within the limits of what is possible. Second: we must make a thorough account of the merits and faults of our ancestors and ourselves. The memory of all this must be permanent – it must remain with us forever. The deeper it all sticks to us, the better for us, because we constantly learn from this. The more deep is the spiritual presence of our ancestors in our lives, the better for us. Our religion is basically all about them: about bringing them closer to us, about creating and maintaining a strong intergenerational bond. If this deep bond exists, then all that our ancestors did or experienced – both good and bad – will be a blessing to us.

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA