Judaism: Weekly Dvar Torah: Vayechi
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.