Thoughts to Ponder Number 31
19 Shevat, 5760; January 26, 2000

The Number of Generations Before Him

The Mishna in Eduyoth (2:9) makes the following observation in the name of Rabbi Akiva: "A father endows his son with comely appearance, strength, riches, wisdom, longevity and "mispar hadoroth lefanav" (the number of generations before him) And this is the secret of redemption, as it says, 'He proclaimed the generations from the beginning.' (Isaiah 41.1)."

There is indeed a lot of evidence that the genetic code affects the child's physical appearance and intellectual capacity. Economic and other circumstances, together with the environment at home, influence much of the child's future. But what is meant by: "mispar hadoroth lefanav?"

In our day and age, it is becoming harder and harder for different generations to communicate. The radical changes which are taking place in technology and science, together with major changes in temperament and outlook make it nearly impossible for parents to communicate with their children. The generation gap widens all the time; we can foresee the day when parents and children will relate to each other as complete strangers.

Jews, as no other nation, have been confronted with this problem. Their history of nearly 4,000 years has constantly reminded them of the danger of their children losing their interest and commitment to their common heritage. Avraham has difficulties in conveying his mission to his son Yishmael; Yitschak has great problems in getting his message across to his two sons, Yaacov and Esav. Yacov, himself, does not seem to escape this problem either and becomes the unintentional initiator of a lot of bitterness between his children, because he seems to favor one over the others.

In all these cases, it is misapprehension which causes the problem. Words and even body language and gestures take on new forms and meanings. This can be clearly demonstrated in the case of the "many colored garment" which Yacov gave to Joseph. According to Malbim, this garment was given to Joseph with the explicit purpose only to be used when serving his old father (Joseph was the only one at home). In no way was the intention of this gift to show any favor to Joseph. The brothers' mindset, however, was such that they were not able to grasp this and consequently they misread the situation and disastrous consequences ensued. The cultural environment in which the brothers operated, i.e. the society at large, 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 because they translate their parents' words in a foreign context. (And so vice versa)

There seems to be only one way in which one would be able to overcome this problem; by creating a psychological language which delves deeper than the general cultural and sociological environment in which children find themselves. Human beings are indeed deeply influenced by their surroundings, but, on a deeper level, they seem to carry a kind of psychological gene which is able to create bridges which span over many generations. This may be due to what Carl Gustaf Jung meant when he spoke of the archetype, a kind of a primordial mental image which keeps recurring in a nation and envelopes the human being psychologically into his natural religious inner life (although we do not believe that Jung meant it in this way). Whatever this gene may consist of, it will only have any real effect when it is constantly re-activated and relived. This is done by making sure that the past does not become outdated but if anything "fore-dated." And here we discover the purpose of Jewish learning and practice. Jews do not study the past because of what happened, but of what is happening and what will yet happen.

In Jewish education, Avraham is not a mythical figure, but an ever present inspiration. Jewish students and children experience his tribulations and his wanderings themselves. They travel with him to Canaan and they tremble when they stand with him on the mountain when he is about to sacrifice Isaac. They escape with Yaacov, and they share the prison cell with Joseph and stand next to him when he is appointed second in command of Egypt. They lead the Jews in the wilderness together with Moshe and compose the psalms together with King David. Slowly they enter into a world with its own language, they share in the solemnities of the "great ones," dream their dreams and become their companions. Here is no longer a generation gap but a "fraternity of the committed" which outdoes all the superficial pressures and external pulls of the society.

Related to this, we discover something most fascinating in the life of Yacov. He seems to relate much better to his grandchildren than to his own children. He establishes a most remarkable communication with Ephraim and Menashe. There are no tensions and there is no jealousy. He literally bridges the generation gap when he declares to Joseph, "Now your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt, before I came to you in Egypt are mine. Ephraim and Menashe shall be mine, like Reuven and Shimon." (Bereshith 48.5) He blesses them, learns with them and no doubt must have played with them. Indeed Yaacov is called Yisrael Sava, "Israel the old one" which may also mean Yaacov the grandfather par exellence. (Bereshith Rabbah 70.1). Why is it that he relates better to his grandchildren than to his children? We may suggest that this is due to the fact that it is only at an older age that he meets his grandchildren. His trials, tribulations and, above all, his life experience has made him into a man of great wisdom. He has learned from his mistakes of 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 which he now represents makes him into a great educator. This he was not able to offer to his children, however much he must have loved all of them.

And 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 still saw him in his "raw" state, while his grandchildren saw 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 of "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. Not for nothing does the Jewish Tradition require parents to bless their children with the blessing of a grandfather. It is indeed the secret of the redemption.

Nathan T. Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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