In Honor of the Chatunah of our Granddaughter
Leah Cohen to Yechiel Habourah
28 Kislev 5773
The Mishna in Eduyoth (2:9) makes the following unusual observation in the name of Rabbi Akiva: “A father endows his son with handsome looks, strength, wealth, wisdom, longevity, and mispar hadoroth lefanav, the number of generations before him. And this is (the secret of) the redemption, as it says, ‘…Who proclaims the generations from the beginning’ (Isaiah 41.4).”
There is indeed much evidence to show that the genetic code affects the child’s physical appearance and intellectual capacity. Economic and other factors, combined with the home environment, influence much of the child’s future. But what is meant by “mispar hadoroth lefanav”?
In our day and age, it is becoming more and more difficult for the older and younger generations to communicate. The radical changes taking place in technology and science, together with major changes in temperament and outlook, make it nearly impossible for parents to connect with their children. The generation gap continues to widen; we can foresee the day when parents and children will relate to each other as complete strangers.
Jews have been confronted with this problem as no other nation has. Their history of nearly 4,000 years has been a constant reminder of the danger that children may lose interest and renege on their commitment to their heritage. Avraham has difficulty conveying his mission to his son Yishmael; Yitzchak has great problems in getting his message across to his two sons, Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov, too, seems unable to escape this problem and becomes the unintentional initiator of much bitterness between his children, appearing to favor one over the others.
In all these cases, it is misapprehension that causes the problem. Words and body language take on new forms and meanings. This can be clearly demonstrated in the case of the many-colored garment that Yaakov gave to Yosef. According to Malbim, this garment was given to Yosef for the explicit purpose of being used when serving his old father. In no way was this garment intended to show preference for Yosef over his brothers. The brothers’ mindset, however, was such that they were unable to grasp this and consequently misread the situation, which led to disastrous consequences. Society at large, the cultural environment in which the brothers operated, had by now given a different meaning to this kind of gesture.
In exactly the same way, parents today experience great frustration when they suddenly realize that their children completely misunderstand them and interpret their words in a different context, and vice versa.
There seems to be only one way to overcome this problem—by creating a psychological language that delves deeper into the general cultural environment in which children find themselves. Human beings are indeed profoundly influenced by their surroundings, but on a deeper level, they seem to carry a kind of psychological gene that can build bridges that span many generations. This may perhaps be compared to Carl Gustav Jung’s archetypes—models of people, behaviors, or personalities that exist in the “collective unconscious” (1) and determine how we experience things, particularly our religious inner life. Whatever this gene may be, it will only have any real effect if it is constantly reactivated and relived. This is done by ensuring that the past does not become outdated but rather becomes current, and even fore-dated. And here we discover the purpose of Jewish learning and practice. Jews do not study the past because of what happened, but because of what is happening and what will yet happen.
In Jewish education, Avraham is not a mythical figure, but an ever- present inspiration. Jewish children and students experience his tribulations and his wanderings. They travel with him to Canaan and tremble as they stand beside him on the mountain when he is about to sacrifice Yitzchak. They escape with Yaakov and share the prison cell with Yoseph, standing beside him when he is appointed second in command of Egypt. Together with Moshe, they lead the Jews in the wilderness, and they compose the psalms alongside King David. Slowly, they enter a world with its own language; they share in the solemnities of the “great ones,” dreaming their dreams and becoming their companions. There is no longer a generation gap but a “fraternity of the committed” (2), which eclipses all the superficial pressures and external pulls of society.
In this connection, commentators point out something fascinating in the life of Yaakov. He seems to relate much better to his grandchildren than to his own children. He establishes a remarkable communication with Ephraim and Menashe, the children of Yosef. There are no tensions, nor is there any jealousy. He literally bridges the generation gap when he declares to Yosef, “Now, your two sons who were born to you in Egypt before I came to you shall be considered as mine. Ephraim and Menashe shall be just like Reuven and Shimon to me” (Bereshith 48:5). As Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik points out, “In Talmudic and Midrashic literature, Jacob is often called Yisrael Sava, ‘Old Israel.’ Indeed, he was the first Jewish grandfather! (3)
Why is it that he relates better to his grandchildren than to his children? Perhaps because it is only at an older age that he meets his grandchildren. His trials, tribulations, and above all, life experience have all made him a man of great wisdom. He has learned from the mistakes of his youth and inexperience. Now, in his old age, he has developed into a well-balanced person, and it is under these conditions that he meets his grandchildren. The tranquility that he now possesses makes him a great educator. As much as he must have loved all his children, he was unable to offer them his wisdom, acquired only later in life.
It is for this reason that he could not have the same impact on his children as he had, years later, on his grandchildren. His children saw him in his raw, undeveloped state, while his grandchildren beheld him as a refined and highly distinguished personality. In this way, he became not only the unique grandfather and educator, but he fulfilled the mishnaic statement “mispar hadoroth lefanav.” He connected the later generations with the earlier ones in an unusual covenant of fraternity. The limitations of time were replaced with the power of eternity. There is good reason why the Jewish Tradition requires parents to bless their children with the blessings of a grandfather. It is indeed the secret of the redemption.
Alex Igel says
Ihave just read your essay Grandchildren, Grandparents and the Fraternity of the Committed:
What beautiful thoughts and words and what a wonderful ” User Experience.”
I look forward to meeting you again when you are next in London.
Gila Manelson says
I think grandparents relate better to their children than parents do also because of the distance. Parents are too close and too involved–there are too many psychological dynamics going on that can complicate things. Grandparents are a step removed–plus old age (besides giving them more wisdom) has mellowed them, and they’re therefore not always as reactive as are parents. The same is true, for that matter, with someone ELSE’S parents(!). A 14-year-old once very wisely suggested to me that when children reach the teenage years, they should all switch parents!