Our lives, our choices are not completely determined by our parents’ paths and by our past. We each shape our own destinies. At every moment we have complete freedom to act in a fresh new way.
In this week’s parsha we find a few examples of this freedom. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milchah and Tirzah are the daughters of Tzolfehad, a man who “died for his own sin” (according to the rabbis, either for breaking the Sabbath or for trying to enter the land after the sin of the spies). The children of this “sinner” merit the highest mark of approval – God Himself says about their claim ken, “yes,” “correct.” As Rashi comments, “fortunate is one whose words the Holy One blessed be He agrees to.” These daughters were not tied to their father’s path of sin, but forged their own bright future.
As if to hammer in this point, the parsha includes mention of another set of children of a sinner as well, beney Korah, the children of Korah. In the list of descendants, the Torah takes the time to record that although Korah and his followers all were killed for their rebellion, “the children of Korah did not die.” Rashi explains that at the last moment, they had thoughts of teshuva, a change of heart, and therefore were not swallowed up with the rest of the sinners.
There they were, surrounded by rebels, all speaking the same angry rhetoric against Moshe. What strength of character it must have taken to even think a different thought, to imagine that those around them were wrong! To change one’s mind in such circumstances, to do teshuva, is the ultimate act of personal freedom, the assertion that our destinies are not predetermined by our surroundings or our history. We are at every moment free to change, to be a new type of person.
We often feel stuck in our old ways, our regular habits of thinking, our usual way of doing things. As we enter the three weeks of mourning and look forward to the coming of Elul and the High Holidays, we can begin the process of change by really taking in the full truth of its possibility. To really believe in teshuva, to really believe in change and the freedom to be different, is a powerful assertion of personal autonomy. We can be different. Our past does not determine who we can become. Each morning, each moment, we are born anew, fresh and free to choose our path. May we choose one to which the Holy One says ken.