Wednesday, 31 Aug 2011

Written by Rabbi Lisa Barrett

I don’t have a television; but when there’s something I hear about that sounds really worth watching, I am grateful for the wonders of technology and the miracle of the BBC iplayer.

I have developed a small obsession with the current series of BBC 2’s Who do You Think You Are? in which well-known personalities embrace the current fascination with genealogy. With a little help from well-placed and friendly archivists, historians and guardians of public records, the subject of each programme traces their ancestral heritage, often uncovering hidden family secrets, insights into the vicissitudes of history with its habit of sweeping up individuals in its turbulent torrents, casting them out on unforeseen shores like so much flotsam and jetsam, and the colourful character of human beings, in all our fortitude and weakness.

In the first programme of the series actress June Brown, aka Dot Cotton from EastEnders, traced her ancestors back to merchant Jews expelled from Algeria under the Spanish Inquisition, finding their way through Italy to Holland and then to London’s East End, where her grandfather spurned poverty and anti-semitism by earning a name as a notorious and unrivalled bare-knuckle fighter.

In the third programme, Sebastian Coe discovered that his granny’s allusions of grandeur were in fact founded on truth: Coe’s ancestor Hyde was the governor of New York in the early 1700’s, and his son and grandson powerful plantation owners in Jamaica when sugar was king, their riches and extravagant life-style fuelled by slave labour, whilst much of the profits went to bank-rolling Britain’s developing industry back home. Back in England, an illegitimate grandson went on to dedicate himself to the service of the local community, and built a Church that still stands not 30 miles from Huddersfield where Seb Coe trained during his younger years as an athlete.

The programme has a certain set format, with repeating theme music, and with the protagonists interrupting the BBC narrator to retell in their own voice each stage of their family story as it unfolds.

In parashat Ki Tavo the power of retelling our story forms the basis of two significant and quite different rituals. The Torah narrator (which is Moses, throughout the book of Deuteronomy) is first interrupted by the pilgrim retelling in his own voice the stages of his family’s journey, bringing him to this moment of coming to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer his first fruits. Unlike June Brown and Seb Coe, the words are not his own, but a prescribed formula familiar to us from the Pesach Haggadah: ‘A wandering Aramean was my father…’ In delivering the Torah’s first set liturgical piece, the Israelite farmer tells the story of the origins of the Jewish people.  More than this, he gives thanks for the produce of the land, celebrating God as the source of all.

The Torah narrator is again interrupted by another ritual, this time one in which the whole people participate. Against a magnificent landscape – a valley surrounded by two great mountains -six tribes are positioned on one mountain and six on the other. The Levites, arranged around the ark in the centre of the valley, alternately call out blessings and curses to the people on opposing mountains who respond with a rousing, “Amen!”, chanting contrapuntally the blessings and curses that accompany mitzvot and sins.

For June Brown and Seb Coe, the process of uncovering their family stories develops in these erstwhile genealogists a deeper sense of identity, forging affinities with their forebears as they return to the places where their ancestors’ lives played out. But the deeper questions: How does this make me different? and Why is this important? are missing from the programme’s narrative. The viewer is left to draw her or his own conclusions about the changes this journey has made to their lives.
The Torah is more explicit. In addition to developing a deeper sense of identity with all the generations that have gone before, the purpose of the rituals of bringing the first fruits and chanting the blessings and curses is to acknowledge God as the Source of All. And hand in hand with bringing first fruits and chanting blessings and curses come the instructions for tithing – if we fail to share our bounty with the Levite, the refugee, the widow, and the orphan, then we have altogether missed the point.

The High Holy Days are almost upon us. When we allow ourselves to enter into the power of these days – both the individual preparation that proceeds, and the collective experience of gathering together and chanting the liturgical formulas – we open ourselves up to the possibility of transformation. With a whole heart and all our being may we fully enter into this opportunity to ask ourselves: Who Do We Think We Are?

Rabbi Lisa Barrett
September 2011

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.