Yichus: The Interplay of Ancestral Merit and Personal Responsibility

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by R. Eliezer Simcha Weisz

This week, Shabbat Parshas Bamidbar coincides with Yom HaMeyuchos (loosely translated as “the day of distinction”). Yom HaMeyuchos, the 2nd of Sivan, is a lesser-known day on the Jewish calendar. There are two reasons why this day holds significance:

1. Chosen People (Yichus of content): On this day, HaShem declared the Jewish people a “mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh” (a kingdom of priests and a holy nation), bestowing upon them a special status or yichus (lineage). In this context, yichus refers to the inherent spiritual distinction of the Jewish people.

2. Calendar Significance (Yichus of connections): Yom HaMeyuchos falls between Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the Hebrew month) and the Shloshes Yemei Hagbalah (the three days of preparation leading up to Shavuot). This positioning, sandwiched between two special days, adds to its importance within the Jewish calendar cycle. Here, yichus refers to the day’s significance derived from its connections to other important dates.

The two aspects of yichus mentioned above – the inherent spiritual distinction and the significance derived from calendar connections – come together to emphasize the importance of Yom HaMeyuchos. Being truly meyuchas (distinguished) requires more than just having yichus based on connections. Yom HaMeyuchos is significant not only because of its position between Rosh Chodesh and the Shloshes Yemei Hagbalah but also because it is a day when we became ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש (mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh), living up to the spiritual potential bestowed upon us.

Interestingly, the idea of yichus is also hinted at in this week’s Torah portion.

ואתכם יהיו איש איש למטה איש ראש לבית־אבתיו הוא: (במדבר פרק א פסוק ד)

And with you there shall be a man from each tribe; each one shall be the head of his father’s house.” (Bamidbar 1:4)

איש ראש לבית אבותיוהוא ,מפרשים, כי הם היו ראשי בית אבות , כי מהם  התחיל היחוס ולכן נקרא ראש,

“A man who is the head of his father’s house – he is,” the commentators explain that they were the heads of their fathers’ houses because the lineage began with them, and therefore, they are called the head.(Imrei Shammai)

The Torah says, “And with you there shall be one man from each tribe (ish, ish l’mateh), a man who is a leader of his father’s household (rosh l’beis avosav, hu)” (Bamidbar 1:4). Rav Shammai Ginsburg, in his work Imrei Shammai, explains that every person (ish, ish), regardless of their background, has the potential to become the head of their own family (rosh l’beis avosav, hu), signifying the start of a distinguished lineage that future generations will trace back to them.

To illustrate this point, Rav Shammai Ginsburg shares a story of a Jew who didn’t know much about the Torah (an am ha’aretz) approaching a Torah scholar and boasting about his yichus. The am ha’aretz, lacking knowledge, relied solely on his prestigious lineage. The Torah scholar replied, “The difference between us is our yichus. Yours stops with you, but mine starts with me.”

Similarly, a story is told of a group of Chassidic Rebbes sitting together around a table. They were not so great on their own, but they were all children and einiklach (grandchildren) of some of the greatest Chassidic masters and were very proud of their lineage. The greatest of all of them had no yichus to boast about, as his father was a simple Jew who derived his livelihood as a bread baker. When it came to the turn of the greatest of them to say something, he prefaced it with the following: “My father, the simple baker, taught me that fresh bread is better and healthier than stale bread.”

These stories highlight the dual nature of yichus. While it can be a source of pride due to one’s heritage, it also comes with the responsibility to act well and live up to that legacy, and maybe even start a new one.

This idea is further reinforced by a fascinating Talmudic story(Menachot 53a) about Rabbi Preida and his students. When a man named Rabbi Ezra, a descendant of several important rabbis, wanted to join their study session, Rabbi Preida’s students were impressed by Rabbi Ezra’s lineage. However, Rabbi Preida himself had a different view, stating that if Rabbi Ezra is a learned man, that’s great, and if he’s both learned and comes from a respected family, then that’s even better. But if he’s not learned himself, his family history doesn’t matter.

אמרי ליה רבנן לרבי פרידא רבי עזרא בר בריה דרבי אבטולס דהוא עשירי לר’ אלעזר בן עזריה דהוא עשירי לעזרא קאי אבבא אמר מאי כולי האי 

The Sages said to Rabbi Perida: The Sage Rabbi Ezra, who is of especially fine lineage, a grandson of Rabbi Avtolus, who in turn is a tenth-generation descendant of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, who is a tenth-generation descendant of Ezra the Scribe, is standing and waiting at the gate of the house and seeks entry. Rabbi Perida said to the Sages: What is the need for all this detail about Rabbi Ezra’s lineage? 

אי בר אוריין הוא יאי אי בר אוריין ובר אבהן יאי ואי בר אבהן ולא בר אוריין אישא תיכליה אמרו ליה בר אוריין הוא אמר להו ליעול וליתי 

Rabbi Perida elaborated: If he is a man of Torah study, he is worthy of entry on his own account, regardless of his ancestors. And if he is both a man of Torah study and a man of lineage, he is also worthy of entry. But if he is a man of lineage and not a man of Torah, better for fire to devour him than for him to enter my house. In this case, his lineage is to his detriment, as it highlights his failure to become a Sage like his ancestors. The Sages said to Rabbi Perida: Rabbi Ezra is a man of Torah study. Rabbi Perida said to them: If so, let him enter and come.

Rabbi Preida’s message underscores that while yichus, or ancestry, is important, it’s not enough on its own. The real value lies in a person’s own knowledge and actions.

This teaching connects to the idea behind Yom HaMeyuchas. Although the Jewish people were chosen for a special purpose, success is not guaranteed. Each generation needs to live up to its potential and continue the tradition of learning and following Jewish law.

Moreover, the story also has a message for those who don’t come from a long line of scholars. Yichus can start with you! If you dedicate yourself to learning and living a good Jewish life, you can become the foundation of a yichus for future generations filled with scholars and leaders.

To further emphasize the conditional value of yichus, many commentators compare it to the number zero. Just like the number zero has no value on its own, yichus by itself is inherently worthless. It doesn’t contribute any inherent value without the presence of other factors. When a zero follows a positive number, it increases the value of that number exponentially (e.g., 10 becomes 100 when a zero is added). Similarly, when a person upholds the Torah and mitzvot in the footsteps of their righteous ancestors, their actions are significantly enhanced by the legacy of their forebears, making their deeds more impactful and commendable. Conversely, when a zero follows a negative number, it increases the negative value (e.g., -1 becomes -10 when a zero is added). In the same way, if a person fails to live up to the values and expectations set by their ancestors, their negative actions can have a more severe impact, tarnishing the family name and legacy. We have  to ensure that we are the ONE, the positive number before the zero.

Given this analogy, it is crucial for every Jew to be mindful of their actions, understanding that they carry the weight of their family’s legacy. Their behavior can either honor and elevate the family name or disgrace and diminish it. This means that one’s lineage is a burden that must be borne with care and responsibility. The yoke of yichus implies that a person must strive to uphold the values and traditions of their ancestors, contributing positively to their legacy.

In conclusion, yichus is a double-edged sword. It’s a privilege to come from a good family, but it also comes with the responsibility to live up to their example. Yom HaMeyuchos reminds us of this dual nature of yichus. While it marks the day the Jewish people were chosen for a special purpose, it also emphasizes that every generation must strive to be worthy of that distinction. Every day should be a Yom HaMeyuchos for us; we must remember our yichus not just as a source of pride but as a motivator to live good lives and contribute positively to our own legacies. The choice is ours: will we use our family history as a foundation for good deeds, or will we let it down?

Be the ONE!

About Eliezer Simcha Weisz

Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz is a member of The Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel

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