“Now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon.” (Genesis 48:5)
The land will be divided between the twelve tribes, descended from the twelve sons of Jacob. But there is a problem. One of the sons, Levi, would become religious functionaries and not given land. There are now eleven sons left. So Jacob approaches Joeph and “adopts” Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. His grandsons become his sons, and now we once again have twelve tribes. In fact, Ephraim would become the most important tribe in the Northern Kingdom, as Judah was the most important in the Southern Kingdom.
It is common today for grandparents to take over raising their grandchildren like their children. Sometimes the parents are unable to raise their own children because of drug problems, jail, immaturity, or other issues. Occasionally grandparents formally adopt grandchildren, but often the arrangement is much more informal. In many memoirs, authors speak of the role a grandparent had as the stable influence in their lives.
Even if children are raised by their own parents, grandparents play a key role. It is not simply the tongue-in-cheek comment of radio commentator Dennis Prager, “Grandparents and grandchildren have something in common – a shared enemy.” Often when I officiate at funerals, I hear grandchildren passionately speak of the influence their grandparent had in their lives. Parents may have the day-to-day obligations of raising children. But grandparents play a key role.
My wife and I have the privilege of being grandparents. It is one of the joys of our lives. Of course, like so many of our friends, our grandson lives out of state. We see him when we can and love the technology Facetime provides. But we try very hard to be an important influence in his life.
The Talmud speaks about the importance of grandchildren. In the section describing the commandment to procreate, the Talmud says that people fulfill their obligation through their grandchildren as well as their children. In fact, the Talmud hints that since the goal is to build generations, the commandment is ultimately fulfilled through grandchildren (Yebamot 62b). (This section may be painful to those without grandchildren.) Grandchildren are the next link in the Jewish dream we chant in our prayers, ledor vedor “from generation to generation.”
Nonetheless, there is a difference between being a parent and being a grandparent, at least in most cases. Parents must put great effort to care for the physical needs of the child – feeding them, bathing them, clothing them, getting them to school and to the doctor. Grandparents, particularly if they live in town, can help. But the burden lies on parents. Grandparents have a different role. They help fulfill the spiritual needs of a child.
Grandparents can give grandchildren memories. Allow me to share a personal memory. I did not grow up in a kosher home. My parents gave us milk with every meal. (Jewish law forbids drinking milk at a meat meal.) Nonetheless, whenever we went to my grandparents for dinner, milk was not permitted. I remember asking why at one point. I suppose that was my first memory of what a kosher home was. To this day, the dishes we use on Passover were my grandmother’s.
Grandparents can also share stories with grandchildren. My grandparents (except my mom’s mom) were all immigrants from Europe. I learned from them what the past was like. Unfortunately, having grown up in California to American born parents, I never learned to speak Yiddish like my grandparents. But the immigrant experience resonates with me, and perhaps influenced my decision to be a rabbi.
In this brief message, I mentioned grandparents, parents, children, and grandchildren, five generations. In my own family memories and values are passed from generation to generation. It is a chain that reaches into the past and points to the future.