My two month old great grandson came to visit me on Saturday night last. He naturally brought his parents along for the visit but he was the honored guest, the center of all generational attention. He will not remember the visit, for memory kicks in later than does birth and unfortunately in many instances kicks out early before death. Nevertheless for great grandparents a visit from a member of the fourth generation of one’s family is an occasion of note and moment.
Having grown up at a time when very few of my peers ever saw or knew a grandparent, it is truly miraculous to me that I have seen and know many of my great grandchildren. Life spans have lengthened considerably over the past decades of progress in medicine and health care. And, the results are reflected in the ability to see and know generations in one’s family in a manner undreamt of in the generation of my parents.
Because of this increased longevity and its allowance of seeing generations in one’s family, one‘s view of life now spans many decades and even centuries. This is certainly valuable and important in terms of the Jewish people, for the validation of Judaism has always been dependent on family tradition and continuity.
Knowing one’s family, its history and traditions, its accomplishments and failures, warts and all, make up the stuff of Jewish life and the secret of Jewish survival. The dissolution and diminishing of family and generational ties accompanied by late marriage or no marriage at all, a very low birthrate and the rootlessness and mobility of the young have all played a role in the slowly disappearing non-Orthodox Jewish society in the Diaspora - and to a lesser extent here in Israel.
The likelihood of seeing Jewish generations without the original backing of a traditional Jewish education and lifestyle is becoming increasingly difficult.
The older generations are, and deservedly so, the memory bank for the coming generations. Though the older generation may recall events and individuals through the haze of nostalgia and personal subjective view, nevertheless it does serve as a vital and irreplaceable reservoir of direction, knowledge and inspiration for the young just beginning their life’s adventures.
The Torah emphasizes the connection between generations in terms of Jewish tradition, and perhaps even more importantly, in terms of Jewish destiny. “Know from whence you came” has a broader meaning in Jewish life than the specific one outlined in Avot. It is so to speak the call to arms of Judaism.
The merit of previous generations is the bank account upon which later generations can draw sustenance and strength. But that presupposes that one knows the name of the bank and the account number where that treasure is being held. And that can only be known through the personal bond between generations in a family.
Self-identity and self-worth, the necessary ingredients for a healthy Torah personality, can only be achieved by the input of generations with knowledge of the past and the dream of the future. Thus the old generation and the new budding generation are interlocked in an eternal symbiotic relationship.
A few of my American great grandchildren used the afikoman money they received from me towards the purchase of their first bi-tri-cycles. I am assured by their parents that when they ascend those vehicles they remember my role and me in their new found mobility. As they grow older and wiser perhaps they will also read my books and listen to my recorded lectures. One can always hope, can’t one?
In any event, life should not be the only connection between generations. Even though I was barely ten years old when my grandfather passed away, he has remained a constant inspiration and role model for me throughout my life. The ability to span generations is a necessary Jewish trait of survival. And it is more than the power of memory that is involved in this feat. It is also a desire to know of the past and of one’s own heritage and lineage.
The Torah emphasizes lineage in many areas of discussion and halacha. The past cannot shape or guarantee the future but it certainly influences its development and the unfolding of events. Therefore the influence of generations – the positive influence of love and attention - creates the Jewish future and is the greatest gift that the older generation can bestow upon its young emerging generation. Actually seeing one’s generations and interacting with them is one of life’s grandest triumphs.