<I>Vaera</I>: Grandfather's Words

It is fascinating how both the Bible and the Talmud emphasize the third generation, the relationship between grandparent and grandchild. The fact is that Abraham is the first Jew - not Adam and not Noah - because Abraham communicated G-d's teaching to three generations.

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin,

rabbi riskin.jpg
rabbi riskin.jpg
Arutz 7
This coming Shabbat, parashat Vaera, is my grandson's Bar Mitzvah. I would like to take this opportunity to share with you what I plan to say to him, to speak not as a rabbi, but as a grandfather.

The Biblical readings of these early portions of the Book of Exodus deal with the emergence of the Jewish nation, from a proud family with a mission to an Egyptian-enslaved and persecuted people, and thereafter, to a free and inspired nation of G-d. G-d initially chooses Moses as the liberator with the promise that includes not only the Exodus from Egypt, but also the Divine revelation at Sinai: "And G-d said, 'I will be with you and this will be your sign that I sent you: when I take you with your nation out of Egypt you shall serve the Lord upon this mountain.'" (Exodus 3:12)

Clearly, it is not sufficient that the Jews be freed; their freedom must lead to their being imbued with the mission that will express the manner in which G-d wants Israel - and ultimately all of humanity - to live. In effect, Israel is freed from Egyptian slavery in order that they may learn how best to serve G-d.

At the end of his life, Moses impresses upon the Israelites the crucial importance of that Bible that they received at Sinai, and he expresses it in a very special way: "But guard yourselves and guard your souls very carefully lest you forget those Divine words that your eyes saw [at Sinai] and lest these words depart from your hearts all the days of your lives. You shall inform your children and your children's children concerning that day when you stood before the Lord your G-d at Horeb [Sinai]."(Deut. 4:9,10) Based upon this verse, the sages of the Talmud teach, in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua Halevy, "Anyone who teaches his child's child Torah is considered as if he received the Torah from Mount Horeb." (Berakhot 21b)

It is fascinating how both the Bible and the Talmud emphasize the third generation, the relationship between grandparent and grandchild. The fact is that Abraham is the first Jew - not Adam and not Noah - because Abraham communicated G-d's teaching to three generations. The animal world recognizes its young, but not its young's young. Only human beings have relationships with grandchildren, with third generations; the third generation begins historical continuity, and since G-d entered into a covenant with the nation, that third generation becomes critical.

There has developed a great literature in modern times concerning the question of who is a Jew. On the basis of what we have just seen, I would argue that from a sociological perspective, a Jew is that individual who has Jewish grandchildren.

This theme of the three generations is iterated and re-iterated throughout our religious literature. For example, the Book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) teaches: "Two is better than one, and a thrice-strengthened thread cannot easily be torn asunder" (Ecclesiastes 4:9,13), and in our daily prayers we repeat every day, "My words which I have placed in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth and the mouth of your child and the mouth of your child's child, says the Lord, now and forever." (Uva Letzion) The Jerusalem Talmud takes this idea one step further: "Whoever hears a Biblical interpretation from the child of his child, it is as if he has heard it from Sinai." (Kiddushin, chapter 1, law 6)

G-d's message at Sinai is not only meant for us parents and grandparents to communicate to our children and grandchildren; G-d's message at Sinai is an internal one, which has the ability to speak to every generation, and has the potential to be interpreted in a novel way to meet the needs of every generation. Our ability to teach Torah to the third generation, as well as to learn Torah from the third generation, is the greatest expression of the eternity of our Torah.

Built in to all of this is the fact that what G-d gave to us was not sky-scraping pyramids or treasures of oil beneath the earth. What G-d gave to us as the secret of our eternity was words, Divine words, which we must communicate to our progeny. This week's Biblical portion promises redemption, guaranteeing in the name of G-d that, "I shall bring you to the land I have sworn to give to Abraham to Isaac and to Jacob; I shall give it to you as a morasha..." (Exodus 6:8) The Hebrew word morasha is usually translated as "heritage" and is found in the Bible in the two contexts of the Land of Israel and the Torah of Israel (Deut. 33: 4).

The usual word for "inheritance" in Hebrew is yerusha, not morasha. What is the difference between these two Hebrew terms? I would argue that an inheritance is an object, a house, a field, a diamond ring or a cash check. A morasha, on the other hand, is a word, a lesson, a concept, a guide for living. The Jews did not have sovereignty over Israel and, in large measure, did not live in Israel for close to 2,000 years; but the message of Israel, the dream of Israel, the goal of Israel was communicated from generation to generation. And needless to say, our Torah is our inheritance of words, Divine words that are seemingly of no substance, but which have changed the world.

As a grandfather, I have very little inheritance to leave my grandchildren; but I truly hope that I have given over a heritage, a morasha. Perhaps the best way I can say it is through a Yiddish song I learned from my beloved cantor Sherwood Goffin:
When I was young and fancy free
My folks had no fancy clothes for me.
All I got was words:

Thank G-d, G-d will provide
Let us live and be well

I wanted knowledge,
I yearned for college
But all I got was words:

Have common sense, don't speak foolishly
Torah is the best merchandise.

I wanted to travel far
My parents couldn't provide a car
All I got was words:

Go in good health, drive carefully,
Go with G-d.

As we grew older and our materialism grew bolder
Once again - Words!

Tell the truth, give charity
Have compassion, be a mensch.

What I really got, and the best that I can give, is words.

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