Parshas Bamidbar (5771)
In this week’s Torah portion, we read the following about the Jewish people: “They gathered together the entire assembly on the first of the second month, and they established their genealogy according to their families, according to their fathers’ house, by number of the names from twenty years of age and up, according to their head count” (Numbers 1:18).
Rash”i , in his commentary to the words “and they established their genealogy”, writes: “They brought their documents of ‘yichus’, and witnesses to the status of their birth, each and every one, so as to trace his ancestry to the particular tribe to which he claimed to belong”.
This got me thinking about yichus (pronounced YEE-khoos) and the Torah’s attitude toward those who have it and to those who don’t.
Although it sounds Yiddish, yichus is actually a Hebrew word (see Nechemiah 7:5) meaning lineage, distinguished birth, or pedigree; as in, “The man she married had outstanding ‘yichus’, for he was a direct descendant of the holy Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov.”
Jews throughout the centuries and millennia have always prided themselves in their yichus – be it their parents, grandparents or other righteous people from who they descended. In fact, it was the custom of many great Chassidic Rebbes to create for themselves a Shtar Yuchsin, a genealogy chart or family tree, in which they traced their lineage all the way back to King David, Maimonides and other great Jews of times past.
The importance of yichus is also a big question in our times, when many Jews are returning to Torah observance after a lapse of several generations, such that they personally might reach great spiritual heights themselves but lack the yichus that others who were always observant have, regarding the significance it should bear in evaluating the merit of a potential candidate for marriage.
The Talmud in Menachos 53a contains a fascinating story of an exchange between Rabbi Preida, his students, and a certain Rabbi Ezra who wanted to come into Rabbi Preida’s study session, which I believe represents the proper Torah attitude regarding yichus:
“The students said to Rabbi Preida, ‘Rabbi Ezra, the grandson of Rabbi. Avtolos, who is the tenth generation from R. Elazar ben Azariah, who is the tenth generation from Ezra [the Scribe], is standing at the door’ — Said he to them, ‘Why all this [pedigree]? If he is a learned man, it is well; if he is a learned man and also a scion of noble ancestors, it is even better; but if he is a scion of noble ancestors and not a learned man, then may fire consume him!’. They told him that he was a learned man, whereupon he said, ‘Let him come in’.”
In other words, there is no question that yichus is a valuable thing, but at the end of the day, yichus alone does not suffice. Only if one learns and grows and becomes someone special and righteous in his own right, can his yichus then serve to enhance his spiritual standing. It has been said that yichus is just a bunch of zeros …. until a person puts his one in front of it.
The beauty of Judaism is that even one who lacks yichus – or worse, he or she descends from truly wicked people – can rise to the greatest spiritual heights and be held in the highest esteem by the rest of the Jewish people.
We see this from the Book of Ruth, one of the twenty-four books of the Bible, which is read publicly in synagogues all around the world on the second day of the upcoming holiday of Shavuos. [For a lively overview of the Book of Ruth, see: http://www.aish.com/h/sh/t/48961791.html].
Ruth descended from the nation of Moab, an idolatrous people who were sworn enemies of the Jewish people. After losing her husband and her wealth, she converted to Judaism and followed her mother-in-law Naomi back to the land of Israel. Boaz, the great and righteous leader of the Jewish people, noticed the tremendous refinement of character that Ruth possessed, and they ended up deciding to marry.
At one point, Boaz says to his fiancée Ruth: “And now, my daughter, do not fear; whatever you say, I will do for you; for all the men in the gate of my people know that you are a worthy woman” (Ruth 3:11).
The Torah commentator Minchas Erev explains that Ruth was worried what people might say about her marrying Boaz. After all, he was the great leader of the Jewish people and descended from a very distinguished lineage, while she came from a long line of evil idol-worshippers. So Boaz calmed her by telling her that although she might not have yichus, everyone knows that she is a worthy woman, and ein yichus k’yichus atzmi – “there is no greater lineage than one’s intrinsic self-worth”. Ruth went on to marry Boaz and became the great-grandmother of Kind David and one of the most righteous converts in all of Jewish history.
The truth is that even if one doesn’t have any yichus, he can always start his own. This is hinted at in another verse in this week’s Torah portion.
The Torah says, "And with you shall be one man from each tribe “(ish, ish l'mateh”), a man who is a leader of his father's household (‘rosh l'beis avosav, hu”)" (Numbers 1:4). Rabbi Yissocher Frand on Torah.org, quotes the Imrei Shammai, who expounds on this verse with a cute story:
A Jew who was an ignoramus approached another Jew who was a Torah scholar and said to him: “I am greater than you. I have 'yichus'. I descend from a long line of great people! You, however, you do not come from anyone of importance.” The ignoramus, who had no Torah knowledge to speak of, had only one thing going for himself - his great ancestors - so he bragged about his lineage. The Torah scholar answered him sharply, "The difference between us is that your ‘yichus’ ends with you. In my case, my ‘yichus’ begins with me."
The Imrei Shammai explains that this ability - to begin a distinguished family lineage from oneself - is hinted at in the above verse. Every person (“ish, ish”), no matter from where he comes, has the ability to become the head of his own family (“rosh l'beis avosav, hu”) - meaning the beginning of an illustrious chain in his own family that will henceforth trace its origin to him.
So – says Rabbi Frand - let no Jew feel discouraged because he comes from humble beginnings. On the contrary - yichus has to start somewhere. If it hasn't started from one's ancestors, let a person make every effort to insure that great lineage begins with him.