Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Yichus
I was once sitting with a very special man who happens to be a descendant of many early Chassidic Rebbes – such as the Baal Shem Tov, the Berditchever, R’ Shmelke of Nikolsburg, the Hafloh, and the Chozeh of Lublin. The topic of yichus (lineage) came up, and he said to me:
“Yichus is a big zero. A zero is nothing, but if you place a one in front of it you have ten.”
My first thought was: “Yeah – easy for him to say.”
Now, as far as yichus goes, it’s a great thing. A child is an extension of his parents and if this child is raised by great people (who were in turn raised by great people) this should set the child on a path towards greatness. There are statements in the Torah and by Chazal, as well as halachos and customs that all seem to take yichus very seriously. Yichus seems to be a real Jewish value.
That said, there can be a dark side as well. How many great people have had children who grow up with a sense of entitlement and undeserved haughtiness? How many people put on airs and think they’re the cat’s meow just because they may have had a grandfather or two that did something special? Is there not a more disgusting ego-trip? Isn’t yichus just representative of the archaic hyper-class-conscious, elitist, corrupt society? History has shown how many of our great institutions were derailed due to corruption that can be directly related to nepotism. We’ve all seen examples of it. I’ve seen some of these cases, and I can’t help but shake my head.
Furthermore, we often proclaim the greatness of overcoming hurdles. One who comes from humble beginnings but reaches greatness is a value that all people recognize – especially in Yiddishkeit. We are taught that the Baal Teshuva reaches heights beyond those of the Tzaddik. And let’s remember that when Chassidus initially came onto the scene, they were the anti-yichus movement. A great part of the appeal of the Chassidic revolution was its decided meritocracy as opposed to the status quo. Of course, all of that has changed, but we can still revisit the classic Chassidic tale of the Mezricher Maggid (later to be successor to the Baal Shem Tov, father of the famed R’ Avrohom the Malach and grandfather to the Rizhiner dynasty:
When he was five years old, a fire burned down his house. His mother, brokenhearted, looked upon the rubble in tears. When asked, she explained to her son that she was not crying because she had lost their house, rather, that the cause of her great grief was that their important shtar yuchsin (family tree) was destroyed in the fire. Tradition has it that the five year old, future leader of the Chassidic world, consoled his mother saying, "Don't worry mother, I am going to start a new 'yichus tree' beginning with me."
This is classic story with classic appeal – we have discarded the often disgusting claims of yichus and replaced it with self-made greatness. Yet, the story does maintain the value of yichus, as we are informed that Maggid really DOES have a great yichus – unknown as it is. Here we seem to have it both ways.
Contemporary society – especially American society – completely clashes with this attitude, and this is part of the problem. The very idea of yichus is somewhat of an anathema to us in the modern world. So what’s the real deal on yichus?
Let’s go all the way back to the Avos:
“Yitzchok entreated the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord was entreated of him, and Rivka his wife conceived (Bereishis 25:21)” – Rashi tells us (based on Gemara Yevamos 64a) the power of yichus: “One cannot compare the prayer of a tzaddik who is the child of a tzaddik to the prayers of a tzaddik the child of a wicked person – therefore Hashem listened to Yitzchok’s prayer before Rivka’s.
And the obvious question is: That doesn’t seem fair; why is that so, and why should that be so? After all, doesn’t the very same Rashi earlier point out Rivka’s special merit that she was “a rose among thorns”? For Yitzchok to be great was a far lesser achievement!
And the answer may not be Earth shattering, but it remains true:
None of us stand on our own. At best, we are midgets on the shoulders of others. To understand yichus we must first understand that. An individual on their own has a very limited amount of merits; prayer – tefilla – is uniquely dependent on those merits, and for this reason we “cannot compare the merits of a tzaddik ben tzaddik to one who is not. For this reason we ask others to pray on our behalf. For this reason we ask tzaddikim to pray for us or those who we may be concerned about. For this reason, Jews visit gravesites of the righteous. Prayer takes merits.
This is also why Yaakov was afraid of Esav – because he suspected that he was lacking merits. This is why, Rashi told us in Parshas Shoftim, that there was an exemption from battle for those who were afraid they lacked the merits to succeed. And this is also part of what the concept of ibbur neshamos and gilgulim is about – a soul connection to individuals whose merits assist us today. This is what is meant when we are told how Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya died a baal teshuva, but arrived in Heaven without any garments (merits) and he was given the garment of Yochanan Kohen Gadol.
Yichus is humbling – if it goes to our heads, it’s just a big zero…