December 17, 2021
This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, provides our first insight into the unique relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. It is in the verses of this week’s text where we read one of the most famous biblical verses, which also happens to be the first intergenerational interaction of the Jewish people, Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s sons:
“May Gd bless you like Ephraim and like Menasheh” (Genesis 48:20)
At first glance, the verses leading up to this blessing are cumbersome and awkward. Jacob has aged to the point of near blindness; he is on his deathbed (47:29) and left with a final opportunity to share his departing words with his family. Unlike our earlier patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob is provided the opportunity to set his affairs and share his interment desires with his loved ones.
Our sages teach us that Jacob’s blessing highlights parents’ desires to raise children in hopes that they will learn their family’s values, perpetuate their morals, and live a just and righteous life full of happiness, joy, and many blessings. This week’s parashah explains that only when we look to the next generation can we tell that our children have internalized these lessons. When the grandchildren emulate the lifestyle and live the ethics of the previous generations then we can see that the grandparents were successful in their passing of the baton to their children, and then their passing of the cultural baton to their children in turn.
Joseph was separated from his family as a young teen. He lived a life apart from his nuclear family. Yet, when Jacob in his final years met Joseph’s children, his grandchildren Menasheh and Ephraim, our sages explain that Jacob knew that future parents’ blessings to their children should be that their children perpetuate the family values like Ephraim and Menasheh.
Now, we could end the insight into this week’s Torah portion here. However, I believe there is an extension to our sages’ understanding of the role of the grandparent that is critical in our raising of Jewish children today. It was only a few generations ago that the nuclear family consisted of three and in many cases four, generations living together and interacting daily. This meant that children were internalizing the lessons of multiple generations simultaneously.
You see, children learn from their parents about “conditional love”. If they listen to mommy and daddy then they are rewarded with love and affirmation. However, if they err then they disappoint and receive consequences for their behavior. Yes, later in life these same children come to understand that this “conditional love” is in fact unconditional. Yet, as a child, there are reward/punishment associations with their behaviors. Grandparents, however, love their grandchildren unconditionally. The grandchild can write on the table one moment, and be offered ice cream the next. The child learns to love themselves because of the role of the grandparent in their lives.
Today, we have too many children questioning themselves and their identity because their grandparents are marginally involved in their lives. We have parents trying to provide conditional love through the act of parenting, while simultaneously trying to be their child’s best friend.
This week, in memory and honor of Jacob’s blessing to his grandchildren, I encourage the grandparents reading this to call your grandchildren and remind them how amazing they are… even when they go astray. To the parents reading this, have your children call their grandparents, and please nurture these relationships as much as possible. In families whose grandparents have passed, develop a relationship with a surrogate elder. Local organizations like San Antonio Jewish Senior Services (SAJSS) would love to connect one of their homebound elders with a local family.
Our Jewish traditions have been built on a multi-generational platform. It is our responsibility to nurture these intergenerational interactions and strengthen our children’s connection to their traditions, their history, and develop their self-esteem and self-confidence. As the great sage Hillel said, “If not now, when?”