Family Tree

Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel according to their families, according to their father’s household… (Bamidbar 1:2)

The counting of the people of Israel was done according to tribe and the father’s family. This system of lineage was unique to the Jews.

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, 684) says: “At the time the Torah was given to the Jewish people, the nations of the world became jealous. ‘Why,’ they complained, ‘were they brought closer to Hashem than other nations?’ Hashem silenced the complainers saying, ‘Bring me your family lineage as my children do.’”

One may ask, how can one claim that the Jewish people have clear lineage and other nations do not? Can’t the Arab world trace lineage back to Yishmael? Can’t the gentile peoples show that they descend from Esav? The Torah lists the generations of these peoples!

It may be true that the nations can trace family trees to earlier generations, but their lineage is viewed in a way quite different from how we Jews see our ancestry. Members of the non-Jewish world see themselves as more advanced than those who came before them. They feel they know a great deal more than their grandfathers. After all, one merely has to see the mastery of the current generation over the environment to realize that people today “know” so much more than anyone did even a mere 100 years ago.

The Jewish people, on the other hand, see each generation as less knowledgeable than those that came before. Instead of being embarrassed by the primitiveness of our forefathers, we become embarrassed by how far we’ve fallen from their lofty spiritual level.

The Gemara (Shabbat 112b) states: “If the earlier generations are angels, then we are human beings. If the earlier generations are mere mortals, then we are like donkeys and not even as pious as the donkey of Rebi Pinchas ben Ya’ir.”

The Chatam Sofer explains that Chazal base our “value” on how we view the greats of our past. If they are seen as great, then we are merely good. If they are only good, then we are hardly human!

The story is told of a Rosh Yeshivah who was travelling on a plane with his son. The flight was full and they weren’t able to get seats together. The younger traveler volunteered to sit in the back of the plane. The Rosh Yeshivah was seated next to a philosophy professor from a respected university. The two conversed a little and the professor mentioned the controversial subject of Darwinism. The discussion was interrupted several times by the Rabbi’s son who kept seeing to the needs and comfort of his father.

“Is that young man your butler?” the professor asked.

“No!” said the Rosh Yeshivah. “That’s my son.”

“My children would never treat me with such respect,” the professor admitted. “What’s the secret to your child-rearing success?”

“It’s not a secret,” the Rosh Yeshivah replied. “It’s a matter of attitude. My son believes that G-d created man in perfect form on the sixth day of Creation. Each generation is somewhat further from the Creator and therefore must respect its predecessors. In your son’s view, you, my friend, are one generation closer to a monkey!”

This is what Hashem meant when he challenged the complainers. He acknowledged that they can show their lineage tracing back generations, but He challenged them to present their lineage as we do ours. We look at the past as a greater time period filled with people who clearly surpass our spiritual achievements, while other nations see their predecessors as more primitive than they.

The Torah, therefore, had to be given to us because its observance is based on respect for our ancestors. In respect to our Patriarchs, one must always say, “When will my deeds match those of our Patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov?” We deserve the Torah and will grow in its glow so long as we strive for the higher standards of those who preceded us.

Shabbat shalom.