"Why are you doing this?" my cousin asked me.

We had just met via telephone. It was a cold call. Luckily, she's was an extremely warm person.

I called her at work and asked for her. She was there. Waiting by the telephone I was so nervous. What if she was not related to me? What if she thought this was strange?

Then all of a sudden she said "hello".

"Hi," I replied and introduced myself.

I knew there was a deeper reason to my longing to reach out and learn more. I just couldn't put my finger on itI told her that I was wondering if she was related to me. I listed the names of my great grandfather and his siblings. She knew them! She was related to them too!

We chatted for a bit and arranged a time to talk more. Then she asked me that question.

I thought about it. The truth was I really didn't know why. I just really needed to know. I had longed to understand where I came from, who I came from, and what has become of my family. It seemed like a cool thing to do. I was curious.

I knew there was a deeper reason to my longing to reach out and learn more. I just couldn't put my finger on it. It was a really good question.

A couple months later, sitting in my garden, I reflected on it. Looking out over the red bricked patio covered with orange pots of green, I pondered the meaning of plants in Judaism. My meanderings reminded me of the holiday Tu B'Shevat, the new year of trees.

I remembered when I was first introduced to Tu B'Shevat. My Judaism teacher handed each student in the class a small plant in a cup and explained the holiday. I was so excited for my little plant. I brought it home and planted it in a tiny pot. A year later, I saw him walking with one of the plants. I told him how much I loved his class on Tu B'Shevat. He knew, from the way I was speaking how much I liked my plant. He gave me the one he was holding. He didn't have to. I wasn't even in his class anymore. From this experience, I learned about kindness.

Now the plants barely fit the potholder in my garden. They are surrounded by other tall plants given to me by my mother and my great grandmother. I remember the tiny plants I picked out with my mother when I was just a kid. She let me pick them out and we would plant them together.

My great grandmother collected plants. Although she died when I was really young, she left her legacy though her garden. Every time I look at them I think of her. I am her descendent. She put her love into her plants so they'd grow big and tall. I know she'd want the same for me.

Each plant in my garden tells a story. They connect me to something or someone. One reminds me of my teacher's example. My mom's plants remind me of my childhood and how a simple activity like shopping for plants can bond two generations. The plants from my great-grandmother teach me that to leave a legacy for the next generation is important.

Studying the plants in my garden, the answer to my cousin's question finally came to me. The reason why I was searching is that I was trying to find the meaning of my life. I was looking for my spiritual roots. What were the branches of my family tree? Who were these people? What became of their offspring? Who would they want me to be? How could I make them proud?

In Judaism, we believe that "the actions of our forefathers are a sign to the children." Sure, they may have lived in a different time and place but what is important is that they lived. Technology changes but people do not. Their stories are ours whether or not we know of them. But how much greater it is, I believe, to know and appreciate who formulated a part of who we are by the immaterial ideas they passed down throughout the generations. We are not just related through DNA. We are related because they are part of our chain connecting us through the generations.

The black and white pictures I have of them stare back at me asking me not to forgetThe black and white pictures I have of them stare back at me asking me not to forget. Keep these pictures precious. This is my face, this is my family, and this is who you come from. We may have physically left the earth but your heritage is part of us. We are your roots.

Sometimes I wonder, what happened to my relative's stuff. Why don't I have a book or article of clothing from someone generations back? What were they like? What did they make for dinner? What were they passionate about? What would they want me to know? What do others remember about them? What do they want to be remembered for? What one piece of wisdom would they want me to have?

We are the fruits of the trees our forefathers planted for us. Do we still look to our fathers for advice or do we think we have all the answers? Do we look at past generations to see where we can improve on ours? Do we look at their struggles, their history, and their teachings as a part of ourselves that never really dies or do we look at them as ancient history? Even if father did not know best, perhaps he knew something we didn't.

Through my research, I discovered that my ancestors had a deep connection to Judaism. They spoke in Yiddish, were leaders in their Jewish communities, wrote famous books explaining Jewish law, studied Torah, and struggled against pressure to assimilate. Realizing that they fought so hard to stay Jewish has made me even stronger in my commitment to learn Torah and do the mitzvoth.

They battled for Judaism. They must have felt it was important. I realize that even though I may have very little material possessions from them, I do have one priceless heirloom they gave me. They would want me to know the wisdom found in the Torah. This is their treasure. This is their legacy. For most of them, it is the only thing I have of theirs. This is the seed from which they wanted the branches of their tree to grow. I need to know what is inside this book to know whether or not the treasure they gave me is indeed valuable. I think it is.

People spend their lives acquiring material possessions. I'm not going to lie, they are nice to have. But do they last? Not always. The wisdom that we live by and pass down to our children is the real inheritance we leave behind.

The wisdom that we live by and pass down to our children is the real inheritance we leave behindLooking at the plants in my garden I think how much a small seed can grow with just a bit of sunshine and water. The seed just needs to be planted. We need to know our roots because we are not alone in the world. We stem from other people who lived before us as well as our parents and our teachers. The Torah says we can learn from everyone. Let's learn the life lessons from past generations before it is too late.

Dear cousin, I'm doing this because it is important. We need to know about our tree. We need to stand for something. What do we stand for? What roots are we standing upon? In order to decide whether or not we will follow in the footsteps of our predecessors, we first need to see where their footsteps are leading. Where exactly did they want us to follow them to?

Perhaps, with our roots planted firmly in the ground, we will be able to rise up and grow bigger and taller than we could ever imagine we could. But first, we need to discover who we come from, we need to ask questions and write down their stories. We need to find out who they were so that we can better understand who we are and where we come from. Furthermore, we are not a finished product. We need to always strive for more. With our ancestors as our anchor, we can use those roots to grow into the best person we can be and lay a firm foundation for generations to come.