Growing up, my little brother was always asked by teachers, “Aren’t you Heather’s little brother?” That is-- until he grew taller than me. Then he was just known as “Heather’s brother.” It’s not uncommon for younger kids to be known in relation to their older sibling in this way, but I hope people were able to get to know my brother, Jordan, for more than just his relationship to me.
Similarly, it’s quite common for wives to be known by their husbands. Like Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Jackson. I always find it funny when women are referred to as “Mrs. Arnold Jackson.” I always have to think twice about who exactly we’re talking about – Arnold or his wife?!? And, does she have a name?
And, despite our individualist-oriented society, naming people based on their relationships to others are common.
This happens with children of famous people, too. They’re often noted as “Angelina’s brood” or “Madonna’s kids.”
And, Preacher’s kids are known as PKs; Rabbi’s kids are known as RKs.
All over the Torah, too, we find references of people defined by others. We know Tzipporah as Moses’ wife, we know Eliezar as Abraham's servant, Potiphar’s wife doesn’t even get a name—she is known only as Potiphar’s wife… and the list goes on!
In these descriptions, one person is identified based upon his or her relationship to a primary individual. Potiphar’s wife is recognized by her relationship to Potiphar—she is his wife.
This week, Moses describes the people standing before Adonai by identifying a primary individual “you” and then calling those around “you” by their relationship to “you”--- your wife, your tribes, your elders, your officers, your children, etc. So, were the women and young people and older folks of Israel present before God? Yes, but it might seem like they stood before God only because of their relationship to the middle-aged men in their lives.
Another Jewish example? Rebbitzen. This is a term widely used in various communities, referring to the wife of the rabbi. Most of the communities in which it is used have a male rabbi and female Rebbitzen. He is a Rabbi, she is a Rebbitzen. Now, mind you, a Rebbitzen could be a doctor or lawyer of judge or otherwise very public figure in her own right in the larger community, but her title in the Jewish community is “rebbitzen” because she is still recognized according to her husband’s role.
This is not a uniquely Jewish phenomenon. In both the Jewish and secular society, people are defined by their relationship to others.
But, does any of this bother you? Have you been referred to in relation to someone else? Do you feel slighted when that happens? Or are you the primary person—the Potiphar in the story. What does that feel like for you?
Believe it or not, I think that it can be a good thing to be known by one’s associations with someone else. Afterall, doesn’t it highlight the human web of connection that we all share? Can’t it bring us closer?
Our Hebrew names, for example—state our first name with the description “Daughter of” or “Son of” and then our parent’s first names. Doesn’t this connect us to a longer chain of tradition. Doesn’t this root us and ground us? Isn’t this linkage a positive act?
Or the engraving on a gravestone for example. My grandfather’s gravestone says “Herman G. Endler” and underneath that, it says, “Husband, Father, Grandfather.” I was his first grandchild, and so seeing that on his gravestone links me to him. It feels incredible to have a link to him in that way and be reminded of our relationship when I visit his gravesite.
But, if we should engage in this practice, we should do it equally across all genders. And, we should never allow another person's identity to overshadow the individual's identity completely. That’s when calling people by their relationships is unhelpful.
For example, if a person is known solely by his/her relationship to another person and has no identity of his or her own. If you only know Heather’s little brother as such but not as the brilliant bioengineer scientist that he is. Or when you have a narrow idea of what a Rebbitzen is, without getting to know the individual nuances she brings to your community. Just knowing someone based on their relationship to another person takes away their humanity. Their individual identity.
We have all been created B’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God. And, as such, we all have a divine spark worthy of recognizing. May we each recognize the connections that we have to one another, but not let those connections overshadow or constrain the brilliant creations that we are as individuals. Amen.
The above is a reflection by Rabbi Heather Miller on this week's double Torah portion, Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30. Please visit rabbiheathermiller.com to subscribe and follow on social media.