Looking at generations

Today many of us have the chance to look at several generations of our family in our lifetimes.

Rabbi Berel Wein

Judaism Hachnasat Sefer Torah celebration
Hachnasat Sefer Torah celebration

On my recent visit to America I availed myself of the opportunity to visit with many of my grandchildren and great grandchildren. The great grandchildren are still mainly too young to recognize me and appreciate my connection to them. As one of them so succinctly put it when he was informed that I was his zaydie: “But I already have two zaidies!” So the experience and its meaning currently is one-sided, weighted very heavily in my favor.

To paraphrase a famous cliché – it is too bad that perspective is often wasted on the old. Over the past holiday of Sukkot when I visited with a beloved cousin of mine spending the holiday with his children and grandchildren in Jerusalem, I realized and remarked that I now have seen seven generations in our family in my lifetime!

Growing up in the Chicago of my childhood, when most of my peers never knew their grandparents, I never imagined I would ever be able to achieve such a feat. To a certain extent, due to the grace of God and the unbelievable advances in health care in our times, there is a tendency to accept and expect to see generations in one’s lifetime as a matter of course.

And of course to think that way is not only a measure of ingratitude but it is a deprivation of the joy that otherwise is such a rare commodity in our lives. For we rarely are able to feel happiness, satisfaction and joy when we receive something that we feel entitled to and fully expect.

The rabbis of the Talmud have taught us that students, disciples, people that we have somehow influenced positively are considered to be our descendants.  Many of us are fortunate to have biological descendants who share portions of our DNA and our physical and even mental characteristics. Both types of the above mentioned descendants are certainly influenced by us but are definitely not controlled by us or are bound by the mores of our older generation.

The later generations always live in a completely different world than did their predecessors. I am not merely speaking of a different world of technology – I was raised when there was no television, no iPhones, personal computers, jet engine airplanes, Internet, fax machines, microwave ovens, etc. – but a different world of human thought and a radically dissimilar social society.

The role of government and our expectations of its abilities to ease and support our personal and financial lives have taken on the greatest dimension in our body politic. Human nature, the good and the better parts of it have never really changed over the millennia of human existence but everything else in our world certainly has changed. Understanding and appreciating this simple bald fact and dealing with the coming generations accordingly, is key to being a successful grandparent and providing meaningful guidance. No matter what, children and grandchildren may resemble or even imitate their ancestors, but they will never actually be their elders. Our constantly changing world and society simply precludes this from happening. 

King Solomon wrote in Kohelet that generations depart and generations arrive yet the world remains standing and eternal. He does not mean that the world remains static and unchanging. There are certain facets of human existence on this earth – physical laws and the vagaries of human nature for example – that are constant throughout human existence. But human society and its civilizations do in fact change.

There is a concept in traditional Jewish thought that since the time of the revelation at Sinai there has been a steady decline in the potential for Torah greatness and spiritual holiness. Thus every generation is judged by its own unique spiritual and Torah potential. My grandson’s generations and its achievements are therefore to be judged differently than those of the generation of my grandfather. They already surpass me in technological matters and on the operation of all of the gadgets, necessary or otherwise, of the current generation. But I would hope that their aspirations for spiritual and Torah greatness would equal that of previous generations.

But because of the vastly different worlds that generations inhabit, comparative results and achievements of differing generations are really not comparable. Nevertheless, I wish them all of the blessings that only the old can bestow upon the young, that they too are privileged to see, know and love many generations in their families.