Parashat VaYechi and elements of family life

This week’s Torah portion, VaYechi, revolves around the last testament and death of Jacob.  In preparing some thoughts on the portion, I was reading some of the weekly divrei Torah sent out via email.  It seems that one of the primary themes of the Torah portion revolves around family life.  In my own thinking on the portion, I would tend to agree, as much of the portion is conversation between Jacob and his sons and Joseph and the brothers.  I want to share with you two Torah thoughts I read this week which I think are quite appropriate to build on. 

This first one is from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

Every Friday night we re-enact one of the most moving scenes in the book of Bereishit. Jacob, reunited with Joseph, is ill. Joseph comes to visit him, bring bringing with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.  Jacob, with deep emotion, says:
 
‘I never even hoped to see your face,’ said Israel to Joseph. ‘But now God has even let me see your children.’ (48: 11)
 
He blesses Joseph. Then he places his hands on the heads of the two boys.
 
He blessed them that day and said,
 
“[In time to come] Israel will use you as a blessing. They will say, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” (48: 20)
 
So we do to this day. Why this blessing above all others? One commentator (Yalkut Yehudah)  says it is because Ephraim and Manasseh were the first two Jewish children born in exile. So Jewish parents bless their children asking God to help them keep their identity intact despite all the temptations and distractions of Diaspora life.
 
I heard however a most lovely explanation, based on the Zohar, from my revered predecessor Lord Jakobovits of blessed memory. He said that though there are many instances in Torah and Tanakh in which parents bless their children, this is the only example of a grandparent blessing grandchildren.
Between parents and children, he said, there are often tensions. Parents worry about their children. Children sometimes rebel against their parents. The relationship is not always smooth.
 
Not so with grandchildren. There the relationship is one of love untroubled by tension or anxiety. When a grandparent blesses a grandchild he or she does so with a full heart. That is why this blessing by Jacob of his grandchildren became the model of blessing across the generations. Anyone who has had the privilege of having grandchildren will immediately understand the truth and depth of this explanation.
Grandparents bless their grandchildren and are blessed by them. This phenomenon is the subject of a fascinating difference of opinion between the Babylonian Talmud and the Talmud Yerushalmi.

The Babylonian Talmud says the following:
 
תלמוד בבלי מסכת קידושין דף ל עמוד א
אמר ריב”ל: כל המלמד את בן בנו תורה, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קבלה מהר סיני, שנאמר: והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך, וסמיך ליה: יום אשר עמדת לפני ה’ אלהיך בחורב.
 

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said, “Whoever teaches his grandson Torah is regarded as if he had received the Torah from Mount Sinai as it is said, ‘Teach your children and children’s children,’ and then it says: ‘The day you stood before God your Lord at Horeb.’” (Deut. 4: 10-11; Kiddushin 30a)
 
The Talmud Yerushalmi puts it differently:
 

תלמוד ירושלמי מסכת שבת פרק א דף ג טור א /ה”ב
כהדא רבי יהושע בן לוי הוה יליף שמע פרשתה מן בר בריה בכל ערובת שובא חד זמן אינשי ועאל מיסחי בההן דימוסין דטיבריא והוה מסתמיך על כתפתיה דרבי חייא בר בא אינהר דלא שמע פרשתיה מן בר בריה וחזר ונפק ליה מה הוה רבי דרוסי אמר כך הוה רבי לעזר בי רבי יוסי אומר שליח מנוי הוה אמר ליה רבי חייא בר אבא ולא כן אלפן רבי אם התחילו אין מפסיקין אמר ליה חייא בני קלה היא בעיניך שכל השומע פרשה מן בן בנו כאלו הוא שומעה מהר סיני ומה טעמא והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך יום אשר עמדת לפני ה’ אלהיך בחורב

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi used to listen, every Friday, to his grandson reciting the weekly parasha. One week he forgot this, and entered the bathhouse.  After he had begun bathing, he remembered that he had not yet heard the weekly parasha from his grandson, and he left the bathhouse.  They asked him why he was leaving in the middle of his bathing, since the Mishnah teaches that once you have begun bathing on a Friday afternoon you do not have to interrupt.  He replied, “Is this such a small thing in your eyes?  For whoever hears the parasha from his grandchild is as if he heard it directly from Mount Sinai . . .”
(Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:2)
 
According to the Bavli, the greatest privilege is to teach your grandchildren Torah. According to the Yerushalmi, the greatest privilege is to have your grandchildren teach Torah to you. This is one argument about which no grandparent will have the slightest difficulty is saying that both are true.
With an exquisite sense of symmetry, just as we begin Shabbat with a grandparent’s blessing so we end it, in Maariv, with the words of Psalm 128: 6: “May you live to see your children’s children— peace be on Israel.”
 
What is the connection between grandchildren and peace? Surely this, that those who think about grandchildren care about the future, and those who think about the future make peace. It is those who constantly think of the past, of slights and humiliations and revenge, make war.
 
To bless grandchildren and be blessed by them, to teach them and to be taught by them – these are the highest Jewish privilege and the serene end of Jacob’s troubled life.

The second Dvar Torah was written by Rabbi Marc Angel:

Rabbi Dr. David de Sola Pool served Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City for a period spanning 63 years, from 1907 until his death in December 1970. In remembrance of the 40th year anniversary of his passing, I quote from an article he wrote in 1944, entitled: “Are We Disinheriting Our Own Children?”

“What parent would willingly disinherit a child, the child that looks to the parent with hero-worshipping trust?  Yet tragically many are the parents in Jewry who are so preoccupied with trying to give their children a material inheritance that they disinherit their children of their spiritual heritage.  They treat the child almost as if it were his lot to grow up to be a citizen of a world that is all body and mind, without soul. Our children have a right to a soul.”

Dr. Pool lamented that parents are so busy making a living, they sometimes forget what is really important in life.  They devote tremendous time and energy to material needs, but give scant attention to their own and their children’s spiritual needs. Their children have the latest clothes, computers, technological inventions–but their homes don’t reflect Jewish religious observances and traditions, don’t manifest the joy and sanctity of Shabbat, don’t echo with the sounds of Torah study and discussion.  Even in those homes where religious observance may be higher, the observance may be a matter of rote and habit rather than a fulfillment of religious ideas and ideals.

If parents do not communicate a positive experience of Judaism to their children, they run the risk of disinheriting their children from their spiritual roots.

Many years ago, I met with an elderly member of our Congregation who was nearing his death.  He had come to the United States from Europe as a young man; he worked hard; he married and had four children; he built a phenomenally successful business.  He raised his children in luxury. He and his wife saw to it that their children went to the most elite private schools, attended the best colleges, drove the nicest cars etc. But they did not maintain a religious Jewsh home, they did not give their children Jewish education beyond a Sunday school level.  The father worked 7 days a week in order to assure his family of a good, successful and happy life.  This congregant was basically a good man. He had a deep Jewish identity, and was generous to Jewish charities.

As he approached the end of his life, he called to speak with me.  With  tears in his eyes, he told me that he could not understand what had happened with his family.  After all, he was a good Jew, a devoted member of the Jewish people. He worked so hard for so many years to create a prosperous life for his family. Now, as the sun was setting on his life, he realized that he had amassed a huge material fortune–but had lost his children to Judaism. All four had married non-Jewish spouses; one of them had converted to Christianity and was a deacon in his church. 

In the well known story, Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to achieve worldly success. At the end of his life, he realizes that the earthly success he had attained was essentially meaningless; he had traded his soul for empty and vain symbols of power.  The story of Faust continues to resonate, because it repeats itself in so many lives.  People lose sight of the ultimately important things, trading their souls for fleeting signs of material success. They not only lose their own souls; they disinherit the souls of their children.

The Torah tells us that our forefather Jacob, when he was about to die, called his children together. The Midrash suggests that Jacob was deeply concerned: would his children carry on the faith and ideals that were so dear to him, that he had tried so hard to communicate to them?  To reassure him, the children said in unison, Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.  Jacob was so pleased to hear this united affirmation of faith, that he responded: Blessed be His name and glorious sovereignty for ever and ever.

No matter how high or low our level of religious knowledge and observance is, we can all devote more and better time to the spiritual development of ourselves, our children and grandchildren. We all would like our children and grandchildren to affirm their Judaism and their Jewishness. We need to stay focused on this ultimate goal.  We all have the right–and the deep need–for a soul.

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