Bechukotai: My Covenant with Fannie of Berdichev, z”l

... and I will remember My covenant [with] Jacob, and also My covenant [with] Isaac, and also My covenant [with] Abraham I will remember. And I will remember the Land,  (Leviticus 26:42)

Do you know the names of your great-grandparents?  Where and how they lived? What was important to them, and what message they might have wished to transmit to you, your children, and their other descendants?  

Although we live in the “information age,” with instant access to historical archives, it’s still likely that our great-grandparents knew more about their great-grandparents than we do about ours.  

Of course, there are many reasons: Emigration and immigration, emancipation and mobility, pogroms and Shoah, and dispersion from major points of entry into the US.  But also, a deliberate turning away from tradition, a focus on the nuclear family, assimilation, and a cultural ethos that celebrates the new and devalues (if it even regards) the past.   

This week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, the last in Leviticus, reminds us that while we’ve gained much from modernity, we’ve also lost much – much of the memory of who we were, and therefore, still are and can be

The context of the verse cited above is promised redemption of the Jewish people.  After detailing the succession of horrifying curses that will befall us if we abandon Torah and mitzvoth, G-d promises redemption when we finally do T’shuvah and return to our proper course.  

This Divine “remembrance” of the covenant(s) with our ancestors is a core concept in Judaism.  Three times every day (four on Shabbat and festivals), we refer to G-d, in the Amidah, as “zochar chasdei avot, u’mayvee goayl leynei bneihem” – the One who remembers the kindnesses of the Patriarchs and brings a Redeemer.  Similiarly, in the traditional morning prayers, we discount our own merits, yet ask G-d to remember us on the strength of our ancestors’ merits.  Momentarily then, if not otherwise, we are proud of our “Yichus” – our descent from “good stock.”  

But why, in this Torah portion, are the Patriarchs named in reverse chronological order?  Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhaki (Rashi) explained that this inverted order is to inform us that that the merit of Jacob will be sufficient to warrant G-d’s redemption.  But just in case this isn’t enough, the addition of his father, Isaac’s, merit will be enough.  And just in case theirs is somehow still deficient, adding the merit of Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, will certainly be enough.  The merits of our ancestors thus serve as guarantors of our redemption.  

I must admit that I haven’t ever felt the need to contemplate the merits of my ancestors (meaning, anyone before my parents) – nor even to bother finding out much of anything about them.  But, in reading this week’s Torah portion and Rashi’s commentary (and perhaps also in approaching age sixty), I have finally begun to realize that this indifference and ignorance has been my great loss, as well as great arrogance.  

It has thus far deprived me and my children of a felt connection to our past, and to the “merits” and teachings of our ancestors.   It has kept us from better understanding who we are, where we come from, and which family traditions we should keep and pass on.  It has kept from us the lessons of our “parents” – going back generations. And it has greatly curtained our sense of "family" with those still living.  

You, too? 

Forgetting previous generations certainly isn’t the Jewish way; in fact, it is antithetical to Judaism.  Memory and tradition are crucial to our identity, even if the past has, as Mordecai Kaplan famously said, “a vote but not a veto.”  

Do we even give it a vote? Don’t we want to have a vote in our descendant’s lives and decisions?  Our own children remembering our Yahrzeit and saying Kaddish is a start, but only that.  Surely we want future generations of our family to remember who we were, what was important to us and why, and what we hoped to transmit to them.  Just maybe, our descendants will need “redeeming,” – whatever that might mean to them -- and G-d will “redeem” them in part because of who we were, and because they remembered us. 

More than that, we should think about our family “covenant” with our ancestors. In the cited Torah verse, G-d doesn’t say, “I will remember Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham.”  G-d says: “I will remember my covenant with them.” Did our grandparents, great-grandparents, and previous generations not make covenants with us, with our children, and their/our descendants; at a minimum, not to forget -- foresake -- them?  But I mostly have, until now. 

Reading this week’s Torah portion and Rashi’s commentary has inspired me to begin this journey of self and family exploration, and of honoring my covenant with both past and future generations of my family.  Already, I’ve benefited. In just the past 24 hours, I’ve contacted cousins on both sides of my family, with whom I’ve communicated very little in years. They’ve already shared with me some of what they know, and have expressed eagerness to join me in trying to discover more.  Surely, our family will become closer through this effort! 

I’ve also already learned that my material grandmother, Fannie Kalina Snyder, z’l, left Berdichev, Ukraine for New York – alone – at age 23.  Suddenly, I feel an instant connection to current news reports from Ukraine.  I wonder, might some of the Jews I see on TV actually be members of my family, descendants of those who remained behind when the young woman who would become my grandmother left?  Suddenly, Yad Vashem is not just a horrifying yet fascinating place to visit in Jerusalem; its archives may reveal my family’s past.   Did any survive the Nazis, and then the Russians?  

And, what can I and my children/grandchildren/future descendants learn from my grandmother’s (and my other ancestor’s) lives? I don’t remember much more than her plastic furniture covers, electric golf cart, sweet cold raisin-milk pudding, boiled chicken, and extreme diminutive size.  If I can learn more about her life story – and those of previous generations of our family -- I may be able to guess what they would have wished to tell me, and my children and grandchildren.  In any event, my life will gain context. I will know more about who I am, and why. And so, therefore, my children and grandchildren (and great-grandchildren?) will know more of who they are, and why -- and, I hope -- feel connected to our history. 

If you are approximately my age, it’s likely that your living sources of family history and memory are diminishing. If there is still more that you potentially have to learn from them, don’t wait any longer to start asking and recording.  Enrich your life…perhaps redeem your life…and, in any case, leave as complete as possible of a family history for your descendants.  

Do it to help current and future generations of your family remember you and your forebears – and for the merits of the entire Jewish people seeking redemption. 

And may you, like me, continue to receive inspiration and meaning from studying Torah and from our sages’ lessons.  They, too, are part of our "family" and our "Yichus" -- Am Yisrael. 

Shabbat shalom! 

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  • Bechukotai: My Covenant with Fannie of Berdichev, z”l

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