Tangled Roots

In memory of Errol Gillis (Shaul ben Avraham) z”l

Students sit around the table filling out a chart. One or two sit back, staring ahead, wheels turning in their heads then return to writing. Smiles appear on a face here and there. Silence pervades the room. Once they finish, there is palpable energy. Then, they begin to share….

The chart that the students are filling out in the scene above is a family tree chart that I give to at the beginning of a course I teach on diversity. However, it’s not a family tree chart for genealogical purposes alone. The chart asks them to note certain family members, friends and mentors, where those people were born and lived, and most importantly, what character strengths the students believe they’ve inherited or learned from them.

The purpose of the exercise is to have people reflect on some of the most positive elements of who they are and to notice how others have helped shape those very elements. This also happens to be the lens through which we can look at the figure of Abraham, who in this week’s Torah reading, begins his physical and spiritual journey that would change the world. By looking through this lens, the first thing we realize is that his journey did not actually start with him.

Numerous commentators point out that prior to Abraham’s command from God to “go forth”, he had already started his journey to the land of Canaan together with his father, Terah. While midrashic tradition casts Terah as an idolatrous figure against whom Abraham rebelled and ultimately left behind, some commentators such as the Radak and the Hida read the start of Abraham’s journey with his father as evidence of the latter’s much more positive role. Given this, and given that we know so little about Abraham’s past otherwise, we can imagine the positive characteristics we eventually meet in Abraham such as faithfulness, commitment to justice, and kindness, as part of a family tree of positive characteristics going back to his father and even further, to the generation just after the flood.

This type of reflection is important for several reasons. It reminds us that our greatest heroes emerge, yes from remarkable elements in them as individuals, but also from the no less remarkable influence of an entire network of positive role models. Furthermore, it allows us to fortify our own sense of our character strengths by understanding just how deep their roots go within us. Thinking about the positive characteristics of others that have influenced us may even allow us to get back in touch with part of that character we may have lost sight of.

I’ll conclude these thoughts with words of deep gratitude to a dear friend who passed away this week whose influence I only hope to honor more with time. Errol, you were a glowing example of kindness, service and love. From your tireless efforts to make all feel welcome in our synagogue, to aiding those in need through your work at SOVA. From your sharing of articles with me every week to the beautiful pictures we’d exchange before every Shabbat. From your great tenderness with my children, to your laughter and smile every time we spoke, you are the reason so many, including me, can know how to live with a bit more of all of the character by which you lived. May your soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life, and may the radiance of your being continue to glow in the lives of those of us who were so blessed to know you. I will miss you dearly, my friend.

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