Thursday, August 27, 2009

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…


At August 27, 2009 at 10:34:00 AM EDT, Blogger Mischazek said...

I've heard in the name of the Nesivos Sholom of Slonim, that when he first involved himself in chinuch, he didn't really believe in the cdoncept of "Rebbeshe Kinder". He himself became a Rebbe with no yichus.
However as he grew older, he commented that you really can see a difference in the hatzlacha of a Rebbeshe Kind and a non-meyuchas.

At August 27, 2009 at 11:57:00 AM EDT, Anonymous shoshi said...

If you go far enough back, you will find out that you too are probably a descendent of RAshi or Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, or Yehoshua bin nun...

If you go back 30 generation, (roughly 1000 years), you have a total of roughly 1 billion ancestors (2^30).

But there were not so many jews in the world back then. So probably you have the same forefather 100 or 1000 times over.
So it would not be very probable that pinkt Rashi would be left out...

At August 27, 2009 at 12:07:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

Yichus, like Zechus Avos, has to do with our potential. If we don't actualize this potential through our deeds, our yichus could be held against us---as in, "Why did you waste your gifts?"

So our awareness of our yichus is not like some plaque on the wall, but is a tool to motivate us to reach higher levels. We have the capability and the commandments; all we need now is to step up our commitment.

At August 27, 2009 at 1:16:00 PM EDT, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Great post!
I think Bob's comments are so true.

I've met great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren of some very impressive Gadolim from Europe. Some are frum and some are not today. However they all have a genuine appreciation for their yichus and, I think due to Zechus Avos, connected to their own practice of Judaism.

At August 27, 2009 at 3:14:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Rabbi Y.Y. Bar-Chaiim said...

Mischazek: It's not correct to say that the Nesivos had "no yikhus"! His father was the president of the Slonimer Kehilla and on his mother's side he was indirectly meyukhas to the first Slonimer Rebbe, the Yesod HaAvoida (I don't exactly recall how at the moment). Still, it's true he didn't have any direct Rebbe line and for an illustrious tradition like Slonim, it seems at first blanch as radical.

In terms of the teachings of Slonimer Khossidus, however, from the very beginning, it's not radical at all. Like your story about the Maggid, Slonim always recognized that the Besh't realigned Klal Yisroel with two crucial concepts: 1) that EVERY Jewish Neshama emanates DIRECTLY from HKb"h and is respectively as holy as another, 2) the verse U'Khai b'hem should been understood also spiritually – that our khiyus, basic vitality, should be drawn from WITHIN the Mitzvah system. Only then can the absolutely equal kedusha potential of each Yid be realized.

The whole power of Yikhus is accordingly not about family cliques or predisposed intellectual and spiritual gifts, but propensity for tapping into U'Khai b'hem. The tapping-in must be done by every individual and education and strong self identity with those who excel in it are crucial tools for that which an average meyukhas has over others. But as you say, when it goes to your head as a sense of entitlement, it can backfire. And for those who must pick themselves up from the bootstraps to do that tapping in, they'll have one up on many meyukhasim.

The Nesivos was a wonderful example of balance. He had yikhus, but not too much, and then did everything in his ability to do that tapping on his own. As if his only teacher in the world was Avraham avinu!

The fact that he was sent to E.Y. by his Rebbe and father under the very difficult circumstances of pre-WWII certainly added to his meritocratic orientation. That 90% of Slonim was wiped out in the Shoa, including the Rebbe, catapulted him tremendously high into this reality. He looked around and determined, as per many first hand stories about this, that H' had put him in the position of "b'mkom sh'ein eesh, tehiyeh eesh!", filling a mantle that's empty. As if the whole world of khokhma al taharas haKoidesh is dependant on you and you alone.

Undoubtedly this is one of the reasons his sfarim appeal to so many Baalei Teshuva. He doesn't cuddle nor entertain but makes it eminently clear that starting from right NOW every Yid can reach the highest heights.

At August 28, 2009 at 2:14:00 AM EDT, Blogger Cosmic X said...

Nice post. Some more on yichus.

At August 28, 2009 at 11:47:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

look I am a great grandson of the holy Goan M'vilna which is very nice but if when I come to heaven and he is embrassed that I am his grandson then whats the point. Its a two way street we want to proud of our ancestor but we need them to be proud of us.

At August 30, 2009 at 10:51:00 AM EDT, Blogger Blind Lemon said...

The late Spinka Rebbe, Reb Hershele, zatzal, began to cry during his last Shaloshudes with his Chassidim, "How can I face my heiliger avos?"

Shortly afterwards, he closed his eyes and his neshama departed.

That's how he felt about his yichus.

Zechuso yagein aleinu!

At August 31, 2009 at 12:46:00 PM EDT, Anonymous schneur said...

Yichus and zechus Avos are different things, related but different.
Yichus in the sociological definition of our time means being related toa famous rabbi or Jewish leader.
Every Jew has zechus avos, as we are all desc. of frume , erliche Jews.As if the Avos hakedoshim are les impt than some 19th century Hassidic rebbe !
Chassiduth came along to fight(among other of its goals) yichus and the abuses of power by a small clique of rich , well connected and I must add learned Jews.
Yet when Chassiduth became institutionalized , by and large it adopted yichus in a manner never known prior to chassiduth, with the concept of banshak, Rebbische kinder eynikel etc. In the final stage of chassiduth since WW1 the idea of yichus has become a manner of getting a free ride both in gashmius and ruchnius.
I have much respect for the late Slonimer rebbe ZT"L but I have met eyniklech vos hoben nit geteygt.
Imagine for a moment a Chassidic world wide community of difft groups each led by the most spirirually worthy community member .. rather than a son of the previous leader
We would not have those Rebbische weddings, those power struggles between brothers and relatives, rather a normal rebbe-disciple succession. Zadikism, one of whose chief characterisitcs is dynastical leadership was in my opinion a chief contributior to the "downfall "of Chassidus.
Today yichus is manufactured becaue after World War 2 who knows anything about anyones family. All I can say is that many of our great yachsanim are such if being the grandson of the 4th mayor of Stamford, CT or the great grandson of the Water commisioner of Boston in 1920 means anything in the secular world. I hope you get my point.


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