We have just returned from Lakewood, NJ, where we celebrated the bar mitzvah of our oldest grandchild. This joyous event evoked in me many thoughts about life and the flow of generations that I would not have considered without it.
One story that I shared on Shabbos says it best. In the late 1950s, an esteemed family in Yerushalayim was celebrating a bar mitzvah and they sent an invitation to Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l. Recognizing his advanced age, physical infirmity and the importance of every moment of his time, they appended a note indicating that the invitation was merely a means of honoring the rosh yeshiva, but with no expectation whatsoever that he would actually attend. In the middle of the simcha, the door opened and, to everyone’s shock, with trembling steps, in walked the zokein hador, author of the Even Ha’azel and rosh yeshiva of Etz Chaim. After welcoming him with great kavod and hakoras hatov, the father of the bar mitzvah boy asked the elder sage why he had felt the need to come.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he responded with a smile, “I had to express my own hakoras hatov to you.”
The bewildered father struggled to ask his question respectfully.
“But rebbe,” he stammered, “I have never had the zechus of doing anything for you.”
“On the contrary, my dear friend,” Rav Isser Zalman concluded, “you see, you caused me to have a hirhur teshuvah (a thought of repentance). You see, I suddenly realized how time flies. It seems like just yesterday that I attended your wedding. Now you have a bar mitzvah bochur. Because I have become aware of how many years have passed by, I must take stock of my life.”
I, too, have many reasons to be grateful for this milestone. Among others, my parents z”l never merited seeing grandchildren during their lifetimes, nor did they even live to attend the wedding of their ben yochid. Together with my rebbetzin, tichyeh, I felt an overwhelming sense of appreciation to Hashem for His incredible chesed. Even more importantly, I have begun to think of my achrayus as a zaidy. What exactly does this role require? Is it really just to sit back, shep some vicarious nachas, and pay a few bills? Perhaps, to cement this somewhat vague relationship, one must put some salve on the reluctant arthritic limbs and shlep the little ones on a vacation trip. Even then, both generations suddenly understand why Hashem gave children to the young and provided rocking chairs to the old. So what exactly does Hashem want from the older generation?
I believe that the best answer was discovered by Rav Zalman Sorotzkin zt”l in the words of the Talmud Yerushalmi. He once cited in a Yizkor drasha (Hadei’ah Vehadibbur 2:39) that the Yerushalmi (Shabbos 1:2) teaches, “Whoever hears a parsha from his grandson, it is considered as if he heard it from Har Sinai.” At first, one might think that the words should have read “from his grandfather.” Surely, we believe that with the descent of the generations, the closer one comes to Sinai, the more genuine and unfiltered is his connection to the Creator Himself. However, when it comes to grandparents, even if they have wonderful children, who learn Torah and do mitzvos, they cannot be certain that they have done their job properly unless they see that those children have perpetuated the chinuch they received in their own children. When the zaidy sees his grandson learning with the same fire and dedication that he instilled in the child’s father, he can rest easier that he did his own job well.
This approach reconciles the words of the Yerushalmi with those of the Talmud Bavli (Kiddushin 30a), which indeed focuses on the child: “Whoever teaches his grandson Torah, it is as if he [the grandson] received it from Har Sinai.” The grandchild must feel that he is one step closer to Hashem when he learns Torah from his grandfather, but the grandfather is allowed to feel that he has accomplished his role when he hears the child learning in the same way that he taught the young man’s father long ago.
This reciprocity is the secret of Jewish continuity. Although every generation requires its own chiddushim – novel approaches and understanding (see Chagigah 3a and Yerushalmi, Sotah 3:4) – the purity and holiness of the Torah must be transmitted to each generation identically. This, then, is the primary role of the zaidy, to be an authentic arbiter of the immutable truth of the generations. He will obtain his nachas when his grandchild sounds like him and recites the same parsha, Mishnah and Gemara that his zaidy learned from even earlier generations. However, to do this legitimately, each one of us who has reached this stage must make sure that we are worthy of the task. It is not enough for us to walk around with a Gemara. Our grandchildren must see in us the joy of learning, the profound satisfaction we receive from davening, the reverence we have for every word of Tehillim we recite.
The Alter of Slabodka (Ohr Hatzafun 1:22) urges every zaide to remember that he represents the ability of every generation to restore the glory of mankind, even going back to Adam Harishon before he sinned. The generation that received the Torah was able, although all too briefly, to hearken back to the purity, innocence and pristine level of Adam in Gan Eden. Despite all the vicissitudes of world history, it is always the older generation that must symbolize to the younger the possibilities of spiritual growth and elevation. Although, of course, occasionally the father is greater than the son, generationally it is up to the elders to provide a glimpse of past glory and possibility. This is the mandate of zaidies and indeed bubbies as well. The Tehillim and chesed of the grandmothers are not only good role-modeling, but a peek into the grandeur of the ages.
Rav Avrohom Englard, the rov of Sosnovitz and later Radziner Rebbe (whom I was privileged to have at my own bar mitzvah), explains that this is what Shlomo Hamelech means when he says, “The crown of elders is grandchildren and the glory of children is their parents” (Mishlei 17:6). If a father teaches his own son so well that the son transmits that exact mesorah to his children, then the mandate from Sinai has been validated.
Rav Moshe David Vali (Biur to Koheles, page 182), a talmid muvhak of the Ramchal, adds that the later years are sometimes called the “bad days” (Koheles 12:1). “However,” he quotes from the Zohar, “these don’t have to be bad days at all. They can be the best days of one’s life if he has done his job well and sees his children and grandchildren following in his ways.” We see that the joy and satisfaction of the later years are totally contingent upon one recognizing his purpose and goal to become the link to earlier generations and times.
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin concludes his essay on the power of grandparents with the insight that the bracha we give our children every Friday night is really the one where Yaakov Avinu invoked his grandchildren. He notes that Yaakov’s hope and blessing for all of Klal Yisrael was to be as successful in transmitting the mesorah as Yosef was in the midst of the depravities of Egypt. Despite the incredible tests and spiritual dangers, Yosef’s children became shevatim like their uncles, the original tribes. This was because Yosef implanted in them the eternal lessons of Yaakov even when he was viceroy of Egypt. “In prison or in the palace, in Eretz Yisroel or in Mitzrayim, Yosef’s chinuch to his children was identical to that which he had received from Yaakov Avinu. Thus, the greatest bracha a Jew can give to his children is never to forget the image of his zaide. Yaakov remembered the image of his father in Mitzrayim and he made sure that his children would do the same wherever they went.”
Our sacred job as bubbies and zaidies is to preserve the kedusha and taharah we inherited from our own grandparents, so that the next generation can receive it unsullied as well. This is the one profession from which we dare not retire or relax. It may not be easy, but it will help bring us the greatest pleasure and the most permanent nachas of all.