No matter who you are, your yichus matters. In the opening pages of his analysis of a legendary creative partnership, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, author Todd S. Purdum vividly describes how Willie Hammerstein (father of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II) tried his best to keep his son away from his own Dad, impresario Oscar Hammerstein I, lest grandfather tempt grandson into joining him — God forbid — in show business. Spoiler: it didn’t work. Oscar II was completely enthralled by the world of song and dance and became one of the most famous and successful Broadway creative forces of all time. Yichus won.
Indeed, this week’s Torah reading of Pinchas seems to have yichus on the brain. For starters, the opening verses detail the lineage of Pinchas, Aharon’s grandson, who at the end of last week’s parasha publicly and violently killed two sinners. The Talmud in Sanhedrin remarks that Pinchas’s lineage is recorded to rebuke those who mocked his mother’s father’s family (they were related to Yitro), which made Pinchas in some way inadequate. By connecting Pinchas to Aharon, whose reputation was stellar, Pinchas was protected. And again a few verses later, the Torah gives the yichus of Zimri, the sinner who Pinchas put to death. The Tanchuma explains that just as we list the yichus of a tzadik for the good they do, we do the same for a rasha for their evil deeds. Willie Hammerstein was right to worry: your yichus wins.
And the focus on yichus continues: the parasha goes on to list the various families of the twelve tribes, describing in detail who was related to whom. This was a necessary preface to the nachala, the distribution of the real estate of the Land of Israel to the families of each tribe. Yichus has serious financial ramifications as well.
But what do we do when yichus gets in the way? I spent a Shabbat once in a small shul where the rabbi led the service, read the Torah, gave the speech, and prepared the kiddush. This was a fairly competent individual. But the morning we were there he seemed uneasy. My friend, a regular at this minyan, whispered to me that the rabbi’s father was there that morning; the father’s very presence made the son anxious. Yichus can be difficult to navigate. It can hold us back.
Is there any escape, then, from the determinism of our yichus? The parasha offers a clue: when listing the family of Korach, the Torah reminds us that while Korach was killed with Datan and Aviram — “but Korach’s sons did not die,” u-bnei Korach lo metu. The sons found a way to avoid the yichus trap: Ibn Ezra reminds us that the sons of Korach, like Oscar Hammerstein II, became poets: a number of chapters of Tehillim are ascribed to bnei Korach. How did they manage to avoid this pitfall? Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin in his HaEmek Davar writes that they became students of Moshe rather than of their father. They chose their teacher, rather than letting things happen automatically, and created their own yichus as a result.
This week the world lost one of the great experiential educators of the twentieth century, my own teacher and friend DeeDee Benel, who ran programming and chesed activities at the Ramaz Upper School for some thirty years. Deedee took students to meet refuseniks in Russia, to paint bunks at camp HASC, to distribute goods in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to help rebuild damaged homes in Puerto Rico, to visit sick patients in Lenox Hill Hospital, to pray for kidnapped chayalim at the Iranian Consulate, and more. Deedee’s influence sent me to Houston after Hurricane Harvey as shaliach of the the Great Neck school and synagogue communities prior to Rosh HaShana in 2017. Deedee planned programs for every significant moment of the Jewish year, and taught her students that there was only one way to do things: perfectly, no matter how much preparation such perfection requires. Her high standards and work ethic inspired generations of students.
If you care about something, Deedee taught us, you must act. This is what motivated Oscar Hammerstein II, the sons of Korach, and — as it is close to the 245th birthday of the United States — the Founders as well. As we look to those who came before us, we recognize that while our yichus can define us, we can also choose just who those people are and what they help us become.
Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Independence Day.