Eight years ago, I went to Israel for the first time in my life. I spent exactly one day at She'arim College of Jewish Studies for Women learning Torah in Israel. The class I most remember, taught by She’arim’s Director, Rebbetzin Holly Pavlov, was about this week’s parsha. Rebbetzin Pavlov went through the brachot, the blessings, that Yaakov (Jacob) bestowed upon his sons. When we think of a parent blessing a child, as many Jews have the custom to do at the Shabbat table on Friday nights, we imagine parents conferring all manner of exceptional wishes for a first-rate future.
When we examine some of Yaakov’s brachot, Rebbetzin Pavlov taught, they seem to be far less than ideal. In language that has to be unlocked by studying rabbinic commentary, Yaakov blesses his sons one-by-one, often by comparing them to animals. Judah is a lion's whelp (49:9). Naftali is a hind let loose (49:21). Issachar is a large-boned ass, couching down between the sheep-folds (49:14). Gee, thanks Dad! What kind of bracha is that?
But upon closer examination, we see that Yaakov wasn’t simply wishing his sons well for their future. He was telling them who they are. He was identifying for them their strongest characteristics and, in that way, helping them to know themselves and their roles better. In this way, Rebbetzin Pavlov taught, Yaakov gave them each the greatest bracha of all – the blessing of self-awareness.
Have you ever wondered about your own distinctiveness? Have you ever asked yourself what your personal role is in the world? Have you ever wondered why you, specifically, were created? Yaakov’s bracha to his sons was to hold up a mirror and let them know themselves. The rest of us have to figure it out the hard way.
Which brings me to our most recent trip to Israel. Each trip has its own flavor. This time, we saw many important and historic sites. But what most impressed me most was that I kept meeting the most intriguing people who had turned their lives upside down in order to live as Jews in Israel.
I met one couple who started their lives as Christians in Oklahoma and who are now, three weddings later, living as Orthodox Jews in Israel. One man from Texas met a 9 year-old girl from a marginally Jewish home when he was 12. After many long and complicated years apart, during which time he converted to Judaism, they were reunited. Two weeks later, they were engaged and are now married and living in Israel with their infant daughter while the man continues his studies in a yeshiva.
While in Jerusalem, I saw a one-woman show about a woman who was born to Japanese parents in Hawaii. She grew up and became a Broadway dancer and eventually fell in love with a Jewish man. This particular Jewish man knew very little about his Judaism beyond the importance of raising his children as Jews. The journey they embarked upon led both of them to become serious Jews now living in Jerusalem.
Then there are the Anousim Returnees about whom I’ve just begun to learn. These are people, descended from Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity in Spain and Portugal, who are reclaiming their connection to the Jewish people. After centuries of being separated from the mainstream Jewish community, the Anousim are formally converting and many are returning to live among the Jewish people in Israel.
I’m consistently moved and inspired by the ways people, recognizing the radiance of a Jewish life, grow, change and fight to become proud Jews. The extreme contrast between these remarkable souls who risked everything to become Jews, and the American Jews who are utterly indifferent about their connection to the Jewish people and about their lives as Jews, is heartrending.
I wish I could give every American Jew a bit of what Yaakov gave each of his sons: knowledge from which they could understand their role in the world.
You are a Jew. You are part of a dazzling and eternal people. It may be that you don’t yet have enough information to judge the value of your inheritance.
But it’s not too late to find out. It’s never too late to learn who you are.