Naso - 5778
Philip Roth, who was regularly cited as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature until his death earlier this week at the age of 85, was the voice of a generation of “hyphenated Americans” (not all of them Jewish). His seemingly autobiographical fiction captured the angst-ridden consciousness of that segment of our society who, even while living out the American dream, remained self-consciously obsessed with the question of whether they were – or ever could be – “American enough” given their hereditary divergence from the WASP norm.
When will I be discovered? When will I be “outed” as “one of them” or, if my differences were too self-apparent, when would the “true Americans” lose their patience with the likes of me and again relegate me, as they did my ancestors before me, to the periphery of society? These were among the questions that motivated Roth’s fiction. He was – at least in his authorial voice – a man who was forever defined by his lineage, even as he perpetually defied convention and destroyed boundaries through his approach to his craft.
This relationship between the individual (as an individual) and his hereditary lineage is also the focus of this week’s Torah portion. Parashat Naso deals, in large part, with the various subtribes that together constituted the priestly caste. But rather than treating these ancestral lines of descent as barriers to fully realizing one’s aspirations, the Torah celebrates them as a definitional attribute that imparted a sense of place and purpose to an otherwise ill-defined identity.
I would hazard a guess that most of us, at various points in time, have experienced our family ties, whether to a parent (or grandparent) or child (grandchild?) as both an asset and source of pride and a suffocating blanket. Especially in a society that celebrates its Horatio Algers, individuals who define themselves, it can be difficult to live under the shadow of an identity that one inherited rather than one that we ourselves crafted.
As Jewish-Americans – or American Jews – though, we are given the gift of being able to shift between the perspectives offered by our two national traditions, the one that encourages us to see ourselves as links in an unbroken chain and the other which celebrates our individuality. And how apt to be reminded of this on this Memorial Day weekend, when we as a nation are celebrating the ways in which we are all in our freedoms and accomplishments beneficiaries of the sacrifices and labors of those who came before.
Wishing everyone a safe and relaxing Memorial Day weekend. Shabbat shalom.
-- Rabbi Rachel Safman