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The Patria in our Patriarchs

In the opaque smoke of battered trust and unrelinquished uncertainty through the void of the pandemic, the upcoming 2022 midterm election serves as a momentary relief, suspending us outside of our worn pessimism. The ability to have a say in future outcomes seems like such a scarce resource these days and restores us with a sense of empowerment. Each election is the continuation of a chain of 4-year-cycles that commenced hundreds of years ago. From George Washington, to John Adams, all the way to today, a country’s prosperity hinges on the dogma and charisma of the leadership from those at the helm, but the sum parts of each of these administrations only ever tell the history of the United States of America, and not George-Washingtonia or John-Adamsland. The name that the country carries is the name of the country itself. However, it is not unfounded to focus on the world given to us, and set the starting point of time from the moment our souls tapped into humanities consciousness.

It is the very real tendency, baked into the condition of sentient beings, to safeguard personal well-being and strategize the expansion of our own individual names. This preoccupation can provide us with the gumption to favor instantly gratifying solutions without feeling inhibited by their long-term ramifications on one hand and the gall to erase history, traumas and all, and start anew perpetually, on the other. This mindset forces us to walk on unstable ground, and if we are willing to erase the past today, what does that say about our chances of being remembered when the world turns along with the tables? This is a precarious disposition, limiting our vistas and diminishing the work of our torch-lenders. However, neglecting this mindset positions the danger on the other end of the spectrum to wedge through. Allowing history to be our only sense of self in our orienteering, creates a folly of running on autopilot in a world that has since changed and evolved a hundred times over. The hyper-reverence of what once was may derive from a lustful nostalgia, or a sense of deferring humility, but every four years we sit on the fulcrum of demolition and fine tuning reconstruction with the unique gift of recalibration.  

In being so rapid to sign on to Sic laden contracts and “I” oriented deals, we run the risk of our primordial ideals contracting sicknesses.

In the story of our own biographies, we take for granted the importance of self-glorification. The aspiration of finding fortitude in one’s own name is a violently selfish desire and it rides on a tenuous willingness to embrace disproportionate power dynamics. The satiety of this corporeal quench doesn’t carry long lasting impact beyond the unitary lifeforms themselves. Cecile Rhoades certainly made a NAME for himself, but was it worth it to leave the earth behind him devastated at the cost of his propped up name?  What we see in the beginning of Bereshit are a succession of individuals who were on a quest to find themselves. The book opens the conversation of inheritance and chosenness and forces us, as readers, to see the perspective of a single generation mapped onto the global landscape of ancestral heritage and human/universal history as a whole. At the center of these life tales we see their life works come to a head when the interplay of their inherited identities waltz with their names, and the centrality of the search for a name being entwined with their legacy presents itself in the motivations for what they end up doing. Preceding this week’s parsha we see the lineage of Abraham going backwards 10 generations all the way back to Noah. And we see the lineage of Noah proceeding the 10 generations going back to Adam haRishon. We can point to the start of humanity with Adam, but we can also start with Noah, because in the great flood, there was but one survivor. So in our election metaphor, we can see Noah’s generation, but Noah actually is the reunification that goes back to Adam because Adam had three children: Kain, Hevel and Seth and the two families of Seth and Kain remained distinct. Kain was cursed to be the patriarch of a destinationless cul-de-sac. From his loins would emerge nothing but a dead lineage and Kain himself was doomed to be a wanderer with nowhere to go. This was the case until someone from Seth’s family tree threw out a Kisby Ring and bridged the ridge that had partitioned these two families. That lifeguard was Noah.

Seth and Kain’s offsprings paralleled each other for many generations. There is an eeriness to how both of these families reflected one another, with a similar moral implication as that seen in Jordan Peele’s horror movie “Us”. Seth’s “shadow family” was really not that much different than Kain’s. Going one generation from the bottom we have a set of Lemech’s, going up we see Methusaleh and Methushael, Mehuyahel and Mehulalel, we have Yared and Yirad, and a pair of Enoch’s. These mirroring genealogies get harder to look at the further away from center they get. The midrash teaches us that the final generation on Kain’s lineage were the inventors of war and idol worship, stand-ins for the basis of all evils in biblical parlance. The self-destructiveness of the flood generation made doom and gloom an inevitability. The capillary action-esque cooperation found in the generation of the Tower of Babel is a step-up from the individualistic attitude of the every-human-for-themself philosophy of the flood generation. The generation of the Tower believed in collective prosperity, and valued the ideal of building a tight knit community in which every individual would be able to prosper together. However, their motivations are still rooted in senseless self-aggrandizing for the sake of engraving the lasting memory of THEIR generation. When rationalizing why they wanted to build a tower they say the shockingly telling phrase, “Let us make a NAME for ourselves.” We have graduated from the second dimension to the third, but without an eye towards the fourth dimension of time. They were then entrapped in a feedback loop predestined to being no more than a vacuous, self-serving civilization.

So indeed, Noah breaks the cycle and bridges the gap when he reaches out his arm to the “shadow family” on the other side and marries Na’ama. Na’ama’s name and story echoes that of Naomi from the book of Ruth. A woman whose dead legacy is extended and from that moment of Jubilee counting 10 generations ahead we can follow the bloodline down to King David the first dynastic Monarch of the Jewish people. 

And so we restart at Noah; the same way that we restarted with Adam haRishon with a second chance and that same engagement of extending a dead lineage is the same activity that we see at the beginning of Abraham’s journey, 10 generations later, when he marries Sarai. When Abraham is confronted by Avimelech inquiring why he said that she was his sister, Abraham said that she was indeed his sister, and Rashi teaches us that Jessica, the daughter of his deceased brother, is in fact Sarai. Both Sarai and Jessica are synonyms meaning princess, and both Jessica and her sister Milcha, wife of Abraham’s other brother Nachor and also the other child of Haran, share the same gematria. So Abraham’s marriage with Sarai symbolizes a reconstitution of his family. Furthermore, Abraham brings Lot, his deceased brother’s third child, with him. In doing so, Abraham does not allow the brokenness to last without addressing it, even for one generation. This mission of reincarnating a dead lineage has greater depth when we consider the names of Na’ama’s siblings. Her half-brothers Yuval and Yaval are grammatical variants of the name of their deceased ancestor Hevel, murdered by his brother Kain, and her brother Kain-Tuval carries the name of both Kain and a variation on the name Hevel, and so that generation was bringing their family history back to the forefront and reconciling the sin of their ancestor in their own lifetime. In saying we need to do teshuva and we need to return. That is the legacy that they continued. The legacy that goes backwards are the “names”—in each of these individual’s “names” we can retrieve their own life’s mission and their own life’s task. That is the work that is done, it’s not their own names that they seek to proliferate and expand upon, but it is the names that they inherited from their past. But not only can we see that it is the names of their past, we see a great importance and we see a through-line that traverses the entire book of Bereishit with the importance of these names, of the lineage that gets passed down, the lineage that we follow through Avraham and reaches its arm out all the way to this year’s 2022 mid-term election.

Shabbat Shalom.

Dvir Cahana – Make A Name, Bezallel Koli

This essay is part of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s weekly parsha wisdom. Each week, graduates of YCT share their thoughts on the parsha, refracted through the lens of their rabbinates and the people they are serving, with all of us.

About the Author
Dvir Cahana is enrolled at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He founded the Moishe House in Montreal and sat on their regional advisory board. Dvir received Jewish Week’s 36 under 36 recognition for launching The Amen Institute, where artists and rabbis come together to inspire the creation of sermons and art work.
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