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 There is a natural curiosity within each of us as to our origins and ancestry. There are even many organizations, professional, educational and commercial enterprises as well that are solely devoted to ancestral and genealogical searches. Building family trees is a very popular avocation in our world. All of this is very true in general society, but it is also a frequent occurrence in Jewish society particularly. I have had requests lately from Jewish people that I do not personally know but that, somehow, have asked me to help them with their research. I have been asked for information on the life story and the main accomplishments of certain great scholars and rabbis who lived in Eastern Europe in the 1800s.

They believe that they are somehow descended from one of these great scholars and want to understand what that heritage may truly mean for them. Most of the requests that I have had are from Jews living in the United States who have little or no actual daily contact with Judaism or traditional Jewish life. Nevertheless, there is a voice within them that makes them curious, even to the point of discomfort, as to who their ancestors were and why those ancestors are so well known in Orthodox and yeshiva circles even until today.
There is much to be said for being able to know who one's ancestors were. This is certainly true when the memory of that ancestor is somehow kept alive, if not within that person's family but within the general community of Jewish scholarship and traditional behavior. On the other hand, I have always found it ironic, if not even tragic, that such great ancestors should possess generations that are completely unaware of them, of their great accomplishments and traditional way of life. I am intrigued that somehow later generations, far removed from the world of their ancestors in time, place, behavior and spiritual belief nevertheless have a hunger to know about their past.
This is part of the great search that all of us undergo in life, of looking for ourselves. We know ourselves physically but in terms of spirit and self-worth, we are at a loss to truly identify ourselves. Being aware of the history of one's family and of understanding our antecedents many times offers us the key to unlock the mystery of self-awareness and pride. In Jewish life we all trace ourselves back to our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and our mothers Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. That is the beginning of our family tree and every year in our Torah readings, we review the story of their lives, challenges and accomplishments. It is in those stories that we find ourselves as well.
Sometimes knowing about our family’s past is enough to shake us out of lethargy and to awaken a new interest that can lead to changes in belief and lifestyle. I have also found that sometimes knowing about the past frightens and inhibits. I have also had the experience that knowing about past ancestors most of the time is not strong enough by itself to bring about self-knowledge or any sort of analytic thought about one’s life and one’s purpose.
This is just one of the many facts that flood our consciousness day in and day out. Yet, we must remember that we are the heirs of queens and princes, of priests and of a holy people. By remembering this we automatically shape our lives differently and more positively. We are given goals to achieve and heroic figures to emulate. Remembering family lines was always an integral part of the Jewish home and of Jewish life. Even in the darkest of circumstances, Jews could feel themselves special in terms of their relationship with God and human society. It did not make life easier in any physical sense, but it made it more glorious in a spiritual and eternal sense. It emphasized immortality over the temporary and the spirit over the flesh.
Shabbat shalom
Berel Wein

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