11 Jul 2014

Pinehas 5774: Do You Know Who I Am ?!

In perashat Pinehas, identity is a prominent theme. People are mentioned with elaborate pedigree[1]. Inheritance of land becomes a central issue,[2] predecessors pass the baton to successors[3], and entire tribes, named after the single individuals who originally fathered them, are counted for inheritance quotas[4]. Questions are raised concerning whom we should marry and where it is appropriate for us to live. Perashat Pinehas strikes personal chords and asks us in various ways to consider our identity and its implications.

But in a world where moral relativism is prominent and objective values are all but non existent, identity suffers. Through the modern, relative lens in which the world is overwhelmingly perceived, we find that we can be anyone we wish to be, and in doing so, we dismiss the reality of our biology, history and ancestry. We are then left with an artificial self, manufactured out of thin air rather than one that is real and firmly rooted in all that came before it.

To live without an awareness of one’s full identity is to be, for all intents and purposes, lost. There is a vast difference between those who only exist in present, bringing none of the past to the current moment, and those who recognise and embrace the people and events of the past that forged who they are. As our DNA — information selectively stored over eons — programmes our physical existence, so too, the information of our forebears and preceding circumstances programme our identity. To disregard this history, is to disregard who we are.

When we become conscious of the depth of our identity, we feel driven to cultivate and defend it. The weight of selfhood gains a natural gravitas that is not haughty, but prominent as an old oak tree with deep and far-reaching roots rising high with majestic and extensive branches. The tree stands, broad and powerful, with the strength of days untold.

The weight of identity, however, is often too much for us to bear and too powerful for others to face. We, therefore, tend to take the easy way out, and edit ourselves in order to remain with a diminished, synthetic self, that is easy to manage and shines far less brightly. But such a weak and flimsy rendering of one’s self is not sustainable. In order to weather the generations, we must hold fast to our roots so that our branches can spread far without failing.

This is particularly important to be aware of now, when we find our nation struggling to live in our homeland of over 3,000 years against an onslaught of physical and psychological attacks. Not seeing oneself as a direct expression of history makes it difficult to understand why we fight and if it is worth defending ourselves in a region that seems so hostile to our presence. It is easy to become distracted and look at situations on a local level. Yet, when we do so, we forget that the question of our presence on this earth is not primarily a national, political, ethnic or religious one. It is rather an existential question of who we are and where we come from. In truth, if we were to speak our full names we would begin and never end for we would say that we are, the son of, the daughter of, the son of, and back and back and back. Our names are but symbols for all that we have been and all that we are. Perashat Pinehas reminds us that one’s identity does not begin the day we are born, but years before. When we accept and live by this, we find an inner strength and clarity that allows us to stand tall, proud and certain as we shine bright far into the future.

[1] “Pinehas son of Elazar son of Aharon the Kohen” (25:11); “The daughters of Selofhad son of Hefer son of Gil’ad son of Machir son of Menashe son of Yosef.” (27:1)
[2] 27:1-11; 27:12-14
[4] 26:1-65

Shabbat Shalom to you all,

Rabbi Joseph Dweck