The Talmud (BT Niddah 30b) tells us what is going on when the fetus is developing in the womb: an angel is teaching it all of Torah, all the secrets of the world, the mysteries and wisdom of existence. When it comes time to be born, the angel touches the baby above the lip (do you know what that spot is called?: the philtrum) and all is forgotten.
All of life is a reconnecting with what we once knew, what we really know, in the depths of our souls, with who we really are.
That’s why this time period, the 10 Days of Teshuvah, are a time of RETURN. We are invited to return to our deep, authentic, true selves.
When I was adopted 5 months from the NY Foundling Hospital, my parents were told: “her background is like yours.” And Sicilian-American mom was very surprised to get a blond baby – she wondered why they bothered to take photos!
I was adopted by Roman Catholics who were very involved in the renewal movement taking place in the Church in the early 70’s. My earliest memories are of the “guitar masses” my mom used to lead, singing “This Little Light of Mine.” They were part of what we would call a “chavurah,” a small church community. In fact, they called it “the Community.” This was a group of about a dozen families who met regularly after church and discussed the readings. Eventually, as a group, the community sponsored an extended family of Vietnamese refugees. The grandmother and an aunt lived with us for 2 and a half months. This is one of my most formative experiences; it taught me that faith isn’t just what you do in church – it’s about action in the world.
When I was ten, I wanted a bible for Christmas, I was going to read it from cover to cover. And I did! I fell in love with the stories of the Hebrew bible. The characters are so complicated, so human! I was raised with saints, and here are real people, who are also holy people. Leah, who is jealous of her prettier sister and…King David! Who falls in love with a woman and has her husband murdered so he can marry her. This is King David! And Solomon is their son!
When I was 14, I read The Source, by James Michener, and learned that these stories have a history, a people, a land. I wanted to know all I could. So I studied whenever I could, selecting electives that would enable me to explore Jewish themes: in HS I wrote a paper on “Women in the Babylonian Talmud” and “The American Women’s Movement and its Impact on Reform Judaism,” and, in college, Hebrew every single day for two years.
In college, I was searching religiously. I spent time with Reform Jews at Columbia, sang in the choir of the Catholic Campus Ministry, spent time with a Protestant Women of Faith group (that evolved into a coven). In junior year, I began to search for my birth parents. (New York is still a closed-record state). The first thing was to write to the New York Foundling to ask for non-identifying information. And what jumped out at me in a moment I’ll never forget, was the second paragraph, that began:
Father, 26, German Jewish, ……. I thought: Oh, this is why I’ve been taking Hebrew every single day, and studying all that I have for the past ten years! This was right before Passover. I got myself invited to a seder where I was the only one who read enough Hebrew to ask the 4 questions! I joined a synagogue, eventually formally converted, went to Rabbinical school, and continued to search on and off for years.
Then the internet came along. In the late ‘90s, I found an adoption bulletin board online, and posted all my information. In 2003, my birthmom went to the library, took out a book about how to search, and found me 2 hours later. As we began our correspondence, and she learned I am a rabbi, she wrote to me: Oh, Lina, this is soooo weird…. She told me the story of her own mother, whose mother worked for the phone company in NYC, became pregnant, and her co-worker said: my sister can’t have kids; she’ll adopt your baby. Ann was adopted by this Irish Catholic couple, but her birth mother was Jewish. So I’m Jewish on my paternal and maternal sides.
Ann reconnected to her Jewish heritage and wanted to be buried as a Jew in a Jewish cemetery to honor her mother and asked me to conduct her funeral, which was my honor. And my birthmom, Janis, took a Hebrew name, Yocheved, because, as she said: Yocheved sent her son down the Nile and I sent you to Long Island!
Learning about my heritage clued me in to who I was and why. I used to say it was the collective unconscious, kind of jokingly. But maybe it’s no joke.
Carl Jung developed the concept of the collective unconscious as a type of genetic memory that can be shared by individuals with a common ancestor or history. He suggested that the collective unconscious consists of implicit beliefs and thoughts had by our ancestors. He wrote: ‘The form of the world into which [a person] is born is already inborn in him, as a virtual image’ (Jung, 1953, p. 188).
Like the story of the angel implanting the fetus with the Torah. I think my ancestors planted a passion for Torah in me.
Meeting my birth parents helped me feel whole. Like I’d been missing a piece of myself, like the final puzzle piece was placed. It’s also helped my birth family – Janis took a Hebrew name, Yocheved, “because she sent Moses down the Nile and I sent you to Long Island!” And my biological grandmother asked that I would officiate at her funeral and that she be buried in a Jewish cemetery, so that she could honor her birth mother and Jewish heritage.
Maybe your story isn’t so dramatic, but your soul has a story. You, too, may have missing pieces that could use a little attention and exploration.
Maybe that’s why so many other people, adopted or not, are seeking out their genetic history. Millions of people are seeking more information about their background through ancestry.com and 23andme. And perhaps you’ve also watched Finding Your Roots or Who Do You Think You Are – tv shows that explore celebrities’ family trees.
We are looking for who we are.
Which is why we take these personality quizzes on Facebook – what color are you? What food matches your personality? “This Mermaid Test will Reveal your Personality.” We do these like they’ll tell us something we don’t know! And even though we know that they exist to gather information on us.
Because we are looking for who we are.
Rabbi Zusya was ill and his students came to sit with him. As he neared death, Rabbi Zusya became frightened. His students said to him, “Rabbi, you have nothing to fear! You were like Moses!” Rabbi Zusya replied to them, “The Holy One, Blessed Be, will not ask me if I was like Moses. G*d will ask if I was Zusya.”
This journey of discovery, of revealing and uncovering, is life-long. Until the day of our deaths.
On this Yom HaZikaron, Day of Remembrance – may we remember who we are, and who we might be.
Thank you for joining us at the start of this ten-day process. I hope you’ll stay with us, as we take this annual opportunity for introspection and return.