Imagine a huge tree, with a trunk so wide you cannot reach around it, an extensive root system, and a magnificent and full canopy. It sits majestically in the middle of a huge park, where despite the vagaries of the seasons, it has stood firm and grown for hundreds of years.
But one winter day, the clouds darken and a huge storm emerges. The tree is ravaged, day after day, by the gale force winds. Combined with persistent heavy rain and hailstones, the storm is powerful enough to smash away entire branches.
Eventually, the storm subsides, but the beautiful tree is left decimated. The roots and trunk seem relatively intact, but many branches and leaves are strewn all across the park and beyond. The tree is a mere shadow of its former self, with huge gaps in the canopy peppered with a lone branch here and there that somehow survived the storm. You can count the remaining leaves here and there that clung on desperately. Few people believe the tree could ever return to its former majesty.
But slowly, bit by bit, new branches and leaves appear and the tree begins to flourish again. After just a few years of rapid growth, the branch and leaf density is very thick in parts, and from the outside, the canopy again looks full. However, when you look from closer inside, the gaps from the storm are still very apparent.
Now, zoom in to this picture, and imagine that you are one of the newly formed leaves following the storm. You sense that you are part of something much bigger, but as you look around, you only see what looks like the beginnings of a small sapling. As you grow, you can see more of what is around you, and you begin to notice huge gaps. There are small clusters of branches and leaves here and there – connected yet distant. You notice that some of the branches, if you look far enough, are joined together.
With time, new branches and leaves emerge around you, some of them growing thick and voraciously. You feel a comfort of being part of something that is close-knit and continues to grow rapidly. But at times, you still look back and see the gaps that will never be filled.
I’ve always had a strong interest in genealogy. On my mother’s side, I am blessed with many cousins – first, second, third and beyond. Looking through the family tree (which is well documented on geni.com), I can identify the “roots”, and see distinctive ancestral first names repeated through family and others connected by marriage. Despite distance, we stay in contact with many of them, and encourage our children to establish and maintain their own connections.
But my father and his late brother were the sole survivors of a family that numbered a hundred or more. We are very close to my uncle’s “branch” of the family in New York, and we have second cousins who escaped Europe for the safety of Australia before the war, and others who also survived the Holocaust and found refuge in Australia. But beyond that, the tree has been stripped bare. My more famous cousins – the former member of knesset, and the renowned chazan – were fifth cousins or thereabouts. What connected us was our common (but rare) surname.
Stranger: “Are you related to [famous person]?”
Me: “Yes [excitedly], he is my fifth cousin!!”
Fifth cousins don’t seem to matter to most people, but if that’s how far you have to search to find the closest branches in the previously decimated part of your tree, then they matter a lot. Through ongoing research, I discover more fifth cousins (with different surnames) and can trace back to our common ancestors.
While our family tree is now blessedly full – thank God – I cannot help but look back and notice the huge gaps that will never be filled.