BY RABBI JOSHUA HELLER / AJT //
One of the most beautiful blessings in the Psalms is “May you see your children’s children, peace upon Israel” (128:6). However, the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is rarely mentioned in the stories of the families of the Torah, and indeed the Bible as a whole.
The written Torah is silent about the impact the patriarchs had on their grandchildren. Abraham, having outlived Sarah, could have seen grandsons Jacob and Esau reach their teenage years, but he never is shown engaged in the stories of their lives.
Isaac could have had a chance to meet almost all of his grandchildren, and would still have been a sprightly 168 when Joseph was sold into slavery, but the Torah tells us nothing about these interactions. Even our oral and rabbinic traditions, which often expand greatly on details only hinted at in the text, are largely absent of comment on the role that these men might have played.
Our portion this week, Vayechi, shows a different model: Jacob, who endured such conflict and strife with his own children, is the only patriarch (and indeed one of the few figures in the entire Bible) who is described as having a positive relationship with his grandchildren.
As his days come to an end, he asks his son Joseph to bring grandsons Ephraim and Menasheh near. Jacob at first does not recognize them; he asks, “Who are these?” (Genesis 48:8).
Several commentators suggest that Jacob was surprised to learn that these were his grandchildren. Having grown up among Egyptian royalty, they had the appearance, manner and accent of Egyptians, not Israelites. Still, ultimately Jacob blesses them both, crossing his hands to promote Ephraim, the younger, over the elder Menashe, despite Joseph’s attempts to correct him.
A number of facets of this incident are worthy of comment. First of all, we see that the “generation gap” is not new. Children’s interests, fashions and language today may be as alien to grandparents as the Egyptian ways of Ephraim and Menashe were to Jacob. In fact, the two boys may have been raised in a faith tradition altogether different from that of their grandfather.
Secondly, we see the challenges inherent in the grandparent/parent relationship. Grandparents and parents may disagree over priorities in how children are to be raised, just as Jacob and Joseph did.
Today, increased mobility around the country and the world means that children are less likely to grow up close to their grandparents, but we also have many ways of overcoming physical distance.
We also recognize that not everyone who wishes to be a parent or grandparent is so blessed, and not every child is fortunate enough to know the generations that came before, but we can rejoice especially at the opportunity to create ties to “honorary” grandparents and grandchildren, bringing together young and old with loving relationships that transcend genetics.
Much has been said as well as written about the tragic events of the past few weeks. I would only note here that every parent I know is holding their children just a bit closer, appreciating their blessings a bit more. We realize that the grandparent/grandchild relation is part of that – another channel for love and blessing.
Joseph’s story is the source of the tradition that Jewish parents bless their children and hold them close each Friday night, invoking the names of Ephraim and Menashe. One of my favorite memories of my father, of blessed memory, is how he would bless me even as I blessed my own children.
Grandparents can be important transmitters of values and are a vital link to the sacred traditions of a family and of a people. They are a blessing to later generations, and the converse is true as well.
To paraphrase the Psalmist: When grandparents and grandchildren dwell together, there is indeed peace and hope for the people of Israel.
Rabbi Joshua Heller is the senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs and a member of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association.