July 16, 2008
The sins of our fathers
Parshat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)
While many people shower in the morning, I have always preferred bathing at night. Although somewhat unconventional, it makes more sense to go to sleep clean and relaxed after being out all day. Moreover, God created His days beginning in the evening, and I adhere to the notion that a new day commences at dusk rather than dawn; washing at this time initiates a fresh start.
Evening baths, along with all my justifications for them, are part of me being who I am: namely, someone who tends to diverge from mainstream behavior with a slew of spiritual reasons to explain why.
But the truth is that I bathe at night simply because my mother does -- and that is how she raised me. She passed this routine down to me in the same way her mother conveyed it to her. And as for why my grandmother bathed at night? In her house in Israel, the solar heater needed all day to produce water sufficient for filling the tub -- she didn't have a shower.
Evidently, I am perpetuating a daily hygiene schedule three generations and a continent removed from the conditions that originally inspired it; I inherited an irrational behavior and the added pattern of seeking validation through Judaism because of it. I say these practices explain who I am -- but really, they explain more about whom I come from.
Pinchas is in the same boat (or more fittingly, bathtub).
"God spoke to Moses, saying: 'Pinchas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the Kohen, turned back My wrath from the children of Israel with his zealotry for My sake ... Therefore ... I grant him My covenant of peace....'" (Numbers 25:11-13).
Pinchas, like the rest of us, is a product of his lineage; who he is seems most significantly distinguished by whom he has descended from, and only after he is recognized as grandson of the high priest do we learn something about his independent character (specifically, that he killed two people -- Zimri and Cozbi -- who betrayed God's commandments). This antecedent information about his holy homicidal tendencies may clarify his personality for us, but they are likely as much reactionary inherited predispositions as are my skills for rationalizing idiosyncratic bathing customs.
Pinchas exemplifies the fact that we are shaped into being by family history. The estimation of our characters is based on what was bequeathed by our predecessors much the same way our appearances are determined by genes they transmitted. Along with eye color and height, the majority of qualities by which we define our dispositions are passed on, as well -- even if they are nonsensical by the time we adopt them. Nearly all the attitudes, ideals, lifestyle preferences, doubts, stressors, resentments and suspicions we unquestionably accept and struggle with as being part of our essential nature have, in fact, very little to do with us. They exist in our psyches because they originally promoted the survival of our forbears in the face of danger, much in the way our toes are a vestige of climbing trees.
Systems of adaptation that ensured our ancestors' endurance begin repressing our autonomy with the first brain cells we develop during infancy that form in response to stimuli in our immediate environment. Our demeanors are prescribed by uncritical absorption of beliefs and actions prevalent in the limited reality of our parents' homes long before skills of reason and evaluation enable us at age 5 to begin individuating; concepts of what is "normal" become deeply embedded in our unconscious -- regardless of how dysfunctional they might actually be.
We mature into warped facsimiles of those who came before us -- acting upon or reacting against the ghosts of an ancient past, while God waits here for our surrendered return.
He issues instruction that "the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel ... by their father's house" be tallied and reported to Him (Numbers 26:2), followed by 48 verses of Torah list names upon names of relations. Not for the sake of perusing a numerical count, but rather, for the exercise of generational mapping do we read these names. By recollecting them, the long shadow of hereditary transgressions are brought to light; in recognizing the dysfunctional transmissions of our lineage, we begin distinguishing ourselves from them.
Understanding where we come from helps us return to ourselves, whole and intact. Like Pinchas, we can slay the distortions and restore ourselves. Armed with forgiveness, we can trace the cycles of victimization and perpetration in our ancestry, and accept that they were simply doing the best they could. Whether abusive, addictive, absent, subtly critical, shaming or doubtful, the people who ignorantly transgressed before us are healed by our healing as we name our past and separate from it enough to see its illusory nature.
We can identify who we are not, and thus become present to who we are: beings of goodness and light capable of recounting with gratitude and wisdom how we came to exist.
Be it with morning showers or evening baths, we can use this Torah to help us wash away the sins of our father's house and re-emerge into a new day prepared to fulfill our part of the covenant of wholeness and peace everlasting.
Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.