דַּע מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ — “Know whence you came,” says the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:1). For many years now, I have been quite obsessed with the origins and the story of my family. Before arriving in Argentina in the early 20th century, my family lived in Aleppo, Syria, for many generations.
To my disappointment, I haven’t been able to find out much about my father’s side, other than that my Matalon ancestors left Spain for the Ottoman Empire at the time of the Expulsion in 1492 and settled in Aleppo.
I have much more from my mother’s side. My maternal grandmother’s genealogical tree goes back to my ancestor Aslan Gubbay (or Gabbay), born in Baghdad in the late 1600s. By the early 1800s there were branches of the Gubbay family in Calcutta (presently Kolkata), Bombay (presently Mumbai), Damascus, and Aleppo.
On my maternal grandfather’s side there is more than a tree, there is a story. In 1953, my grandfather’s brother, Nissim Teubal, published an autobiography, El Inmigrante, in which he vividly describes his childhood and teenage years in Aleppo beginning in the late 19th century. The first half of the book contains his memories of his home, his parents and grandparents, the local customs, the Jewish community and its relationship with their Muslim and Christian neighbors, and more. The second half tells of the arrival and settling of the family in Buenos Aires, a classic rags to riches story.
There is a copy of the book in my parents’ home, and I have my own copy here. I have read it many times. I know some sections almost by heart. I particularly love looking at the portraits of my great great grandparents and my great grandparents, whom I never met. As I get older, I find myself pulling the book off the shelf more frequently to review things I already know.
To know whence you came is a privilege that I am aware many don’t have, and it is thrilling; how we came to be where we are is both mysterious and miraculous.
“Know whence you came” acquires a much larger dimension as we start reading the Torah anew this Shabbat Bereshit. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s distinction between the creation of the first Adam in Genesis 1 and the second Adam in Genesis 2 still occupies my thoughts since I reread “The Lonely Man of Faith” in preparation for the High Holy Days. Both Adams are curious and seek to know. But while the first Adam asks the practical, technical and functional “how” questions—how does the world work—the second Adam, Soloveitchik tells us, rather asks why did the world come into existence, why am I here, what is the purpose of all this?
The Torah traces our origins back to Adam and Eve, Noah and his unnamed wife, Abraham and Sarah, and on, not in order that we may know where we come from genetically or as a matter of genealogical curiosity, but in order that we may know some fundamental things about who we are spiritually and morally.
“Know from whence you came.” Why does it matter that our sacred story begins with a single human person from whom we all descend? The rabbis teach the following glorious lesson:
“The first human was created alone to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul, Scripture accounts it as if one had destroyed a full world; and whoever saves one soul, Scripture accounts it as if one had saved a full world. And for the sake of peace among people, that one should not say to his or her fellow, ‘My ancestor is greater than yours;’ and that heretics should not say, ‘There are many powers in Heaven.’ Again, to declare the greatness of the blessed Holy One, for one stamps out many coins with one die, and they are all alike, but the Sovereign, the Sovereign of sovereigns, the blessed Holy One, stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his or her fellow. Therefore each and every one is obliged to say, ‘For my sake the world was created’” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).
Humanity would certainly be in a different place if we would take to heart these implications of where we all come from.
The holidays are behind us, fall is in the air, and I am eager to start from the beginning, once again—because I know more or less how I got here, but I continue to grapple with who I am in essence, why the world came into existence, why I am here, and what is the purpose of all this.