In recent years, more attention than ever has been directed toward understanding intergenerational trauma, or the degree to which the stressful, negative, or even harmful experiences of a previous generation impacts the next. Trauma researchers and clinicians specializing in treating trauma and post-traumatic stress have begun to develop a better understanding of this phenomenon over the past few decades. Some of the main ideas borne out by the research are that trauma can change one’s neural pathways, and, moreover, his or her genetic makeup. As such, through a phenomenon known as epigenetics, the impact of trauma on the individual can be passed on to his or her children or even grandchildren, even if they never experience trauma themselves. Furthermore, even the unspoken impact of pain and suffering can affect one’s progeny. In his book, It Didn’t Start with You, Mark Wollyn discusses the impact of inherited family trauma, the ways in which the traumatic experiences of one’s family of origin can impact the individual, even if he himself did not encounter those challenges or live through those events.
The field of psychology is often concerned with these kinds of ideas, the ways that our parents or family impact our beliefs, habits, overall wellbeing, and even our vulnerability to problems in mental health. We know that we are strongly influenced by the values, experiences, and behaviors of our parents and even grandparents, certainly in the ways we take in what we see them say and do. But the idea that we may be impacted by life events of a previous generation over which we have no control and to which we bear no witness is truly disconcerting. These ideas underscore a fundamental psychological question: Is our identity inherent, a combination of DNA and personality that we manifest across our lifetime through a series of free-will choices that we (and only we) can make? Or, is who we are and how we live inherited, whereby the story of our lives is to some degree written for us, encoded in our genetics, influenced by the experiences of previous generations, outlining a life we will live without much choice or say-so?
Parshas Pinchas highlights four different intergenerational storylines that shed light on this fundamentally crucial conundrum. First (25:11), we encounter a description of Pinchas himself, whose inherited traits of loving peace derive from his ancestry as a grandson of Aharon HaKohen. As we’ve discussed previously, Pinchas both possessed these traits, and chose to act opposite to them when the moment called for an act of zealous violence in G-d’s name. Clearly, Pinchas demonstrates that possessing a trait does not necessitate only ever acting on that trait at all times.
Next, during the counting of Bnei Yisrael when Shevet Levi is tallied, the pasuk tells us, “U’vnei Korach Lo Meisu,” the sons of Korach did not die (26:11). Fascinatingly, Rashi notes that Bnei Korach did Teshuva at the last minute, and did not fully join in their father’s plot in their hearts. The Netziv (Ha’amek Davar 26:11) notes that Korach’s sons did not fully join in their father’s uprising out of loyalty to their teacher Moshe. Because Korach’s whole rebellion centered around undermining Moshe’s leadership, his sons chose to defy their father rather than betraying their Rebbi. This powerfully highlights the degree to which children have the capacity to choose differently than their parents - even in dire circumstances and under tremendous pressure, even when nurture and nature may seem to set the stage for one set of choices, we are always free to elect a different path for ourselves.
Later, after the census taken of all of the tribes to determine the apportioning of land in Eretz Yisrael, we hear about the daughters of Tzelafchad, whose likely true identity was the Mikoshesh Eitzim according to R’ Akiva (as quoted by Rashi 27:3). The Bnos Tzelafchad seek to preserve their father’s legacy despite the fact that he sinned and was Chayav Misah (27:1-4). Their determination to inherit land in Eretz Yisrael in their father’s name demonstrates that one can choose to continue a family legacy rather than disassociate from one’s family of origin, and by so doing, seek to create a new legacy. In keeping the Mitzvos relevant to owning land in Eretz Yisrael, Tzelafchad’s daughters would be able to foster a new, better name for their father. Perhaps this indicates that overcoming fraught family storylines does not always mean creating an entirely new identity, but rather finding opportunities to write new, better stories and carry on a legacy without maintaining the negative attributes of it.
Later on in the Parsha, Moshe asks Hashem to appoint a new leader to take over after he dies (27:16). Rashi explains that Moshe, inspired by the Bnos Tzelafchas, hoped that one of his own sons would take over as leader, yet Hashem tells Moshe to appoint Yehoshua bin Nun instead. This demonstrates that not everything is meant to be kept within families, and not all traits are identical generation to generation.
These four different stories highlight the various angles from which one can understand the role of nature and nurture in determining one’s destiny. Genetics, inherited traits, and emphasized values and beliefs can all influence a person’s personality or general makeup. And, we have the freedom and ability to either maintain the legacies of our previous generations (for better or for worse), to continue a chain of intergenerational experiences and tendencies, or to choose differently for ourselves. As the research seems to demonstrate, awareness of what lies dormant within us is key. When individuals know the traumatic events that previous generations experienced, when we can identify the tendencies, values, behaviors, habits, or worries that may be latent in our DNA, we can be less vulnerable to blindly continuing on a path that we would not ourselves choose.
It is fair to describe the Jewish people as a “traumatized” nation. Collectively, we have been through generation after generation of persecution, oppression, and suffering. We share actual genetic material, and we share spiritual DNA. We are a people of legacy, carrying with us thousands of years of national narrative. And not all of that story is pleasant to recount. Our intergenerational trauma impacts us in many ways. It is part of what makes us operate out of fear, prioritizing retaining our identity over and above all else, because of how precarious preserving that identity has been historically. And, sometimes, it is important to stop and ask ourselves: What legacies are we holding on to that no longer serve us? Beyond the traditions that make us who we are, outside of our adherence to Halacha and our identity as Jewish people, what are we maintaining within our spiritual DNA that actually may be more harmful than helpful?
We find ourselves now in a time known as Bein HaMitzarim, the three-week period between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. Personally, this time of year often gives me a feeling of de ja vu, a sense that we have been here before, that this experience is not new or different. Historically this time has always been connected to pain and suffering on a personal and national level. And, that feeling of having been here before is critically important to tune into. Perhaps the most dangerous thing we can succumb to as a people is the sense that the cycle of our nation has been and always will be the same. Looking at our calendar and saying, “oh, yes, those terrible weeks of suffering are coming – here we go again!” makes it seem as though there is no alternative ending. We assume that because this is what the previous generation did, this, too, is our fate. And this is our gravest error.
The Gemara Yerushalmi (Yoma 1:1) states, “Kol dor she’lo nivnah beis ha’mikdash biyamav, ke’ilu necherav bi’yamav,” in every generation that the Beis HaMikdash is not rebuilt, it is as if it was destroyed in their days. How can this be? Are we liable for sins committed thousands of years before our time that resulted in the Chorban? The simplest explanation is thus: We are not liable for the behavior of the generations before us; we are responsible for changing our behavior now, in our days, in our time, in our lives. It is for the fact that we allow these cycles to continue, that we encounter yet another Three Weeks and barely bat an eye, that we are held accountable. Yes, we have collectively been through thousands of years of persecution and suffering, of pain, confusion, and questioning, watching the years pass and our redemption continue to elude us. We may blame our genetics, our ancestors, the messes made by people whose names we barely remember and whose legacies are etched in our very DNA. But blame won’t rebuild our Temple, and abdicating responsibility by citing our forefathers’ choices will not bring the Geulah.
This week, it is time to take a different path. It is time to recognize that just as the protagonists of Parshas Pinchas were able to make individual, autonomous choices irrespective of the legacies of their previous generations, so can we do the same. There are certain legacies we will carry as a nation into eternity, stories that define us and strengthen us. But anything that we are still holding onto that keeps us stuck in suffering, locked in spiritual stagnation, or operating only from a place of fear and pain must be eradicated.
During these three weeks, let us recognize that no matter what’s happened until now, we can choose differently. Identify one thing that holds you back in your life, spiritually or emotionally, that you may have inherited, but is not necessarily inherent to who you are. Ask yourself if that trait, fear, tendency, belief, or value is serving you. If it is, nurture it. If it is not, strive to separate from it.
And, on a national level, let us all recognize where we’ve grown complacent or apathetic to our collective narrative as a people. Just because we have been here before, just because another year has passed and the Geulah has not yet come, does not mean we are doomed to stay on this carousel of crisis and suffering. We can stop the cycle. May it be Hashem’s will that our generation will merit to make the choices and forge the path that ultimately leads to Binyan Bayis Shlishi, bi’karov!