Parshat Pinchas: Learning to Build a Legacy
Over the last year, my mother has been texting me some of her recipes so that I could make them in my own home. Sometimes it worked well, but often, although it tasted fine, it just didn’t taste like it does when she makes it. I think the problem lies in how I define “a smidge” or “a pinch” or “fill the palm of your hand with pepper”, versus my mother’s definition of these measures. I’ve learned to accept that I can’t duplicate these dishes, I can only personalize them and carry on.
But every now and then, when I’m able to speak with my aunt (my mother’s sister who lives in Israel), I manage to get actual measurements for things. She is the keeper of the family flavours — the problem is she learned these recipes from her mother, and neither of these women were speaking English to each other. In fact, although they lived in Israel, these recipes weren’t exactly in Hebrew either. They’re in some old-world mix of Hebrew, Arabic, French, and Ladino. I end up with descriptions of the ingredients, rather than the actual names of them. In the end, I get measurements from my aunt, but I have no idea what ingredient I’m supposed to be measuring. In essence, I play Russian Roulette with the traditional family recipes. However, I did notice that anytime I asked my aunt about when she and my mother were growing up, she would tell me to ask my mother about details and names because she never remembers them.
Somewhere between my mother and my aunt lies the full memory of that side of the family. Each is the expert of a corner of the legacy I’m searching for.
I can’t help but think of another woman who harboured a priceless legacy, and she appears in the Torah reading this week, parshat Pinchas. Our Jewish heritage teaches us that when the Israelites left Egypt, they wandered in the desert for 40 years, during which time the slave generation died out. Miriam, Aaron, and ultimately Moses, don’t enter Israel, as they were from the generation of Egypt. Yet, surprisingly, the Torah tells us that one woman, Serach, who left Egypt as a slave, will be among those who enter Israel. We see her name listed in the parsha during a census. Amidst all the names of men appears the name of only one woman, Asher’s daughter Serach.
The Torah never explains why this woman’s name is listed in the census, and we are never told of anything she did. The only thing we notice is that her name is listed among those who entered Egypt, it appears here in the census, and it will be listed later among those who enter Israel. What do we know of this unusual woman?
Some of our sources speak of her position as the embodiment of our memories. She is the woman who knew us when we were a clan in Canaan, and then knew our pain and torment in Egypt. She is the woman who witnessed the leadership of Moses and the challenges of the people. She is the same woman who watches all her peers perish as she educates the next generation about their roots and their anchors.
She is our living legacy.
Serach is how the Torah teaches us that our history sits within the people first. It is their voices that will speak of our experiences and will create a history we can trust. She observes it all, records it all, and teaches it all. I can’t help but think of the year and a half we’ve all just been through and how we will choose to record it.
Aside from the changes to our daily lives and our relationships, there have been challenges to our Jewish experiences. Did we maintain holiness to our holidays and our Shabbat experiences when we couldn’t gather together? Were our Jewish moments still special when we couldn’t sit with our families? Did we pray? Did we find ways to seek community? Were we able to reach out and help those who needed our helping hands? Did our Jewish values guide us through dark moments or were they sitting silently as we struggled?
Added to all these questions is the question this week’s parsha adds: will we chronicle our experience in all its positive and negative aspects, or are we eager to forget it and move on?
Everyone of us has endured a difficult year, and each of our experiences are different. Judaism always teaches us to study the texts we’ve inherited and create new texts as we move forward. All of us had private moments of sadness, but we also had surprising moments of appreciation and gratitude. As we are able to move beyond the experience, we must decide if the year becomes a memory or a legacy. A memory will sit inside of us and it will speak to us every now and again as a ‘remember when’ moment. A legacy is something that sits on the experience in all its facets and emerges with the lessons learned. A legacy moves beyond us and becomes an inheritance.