Here is one of my father’s favorite stories:
When my father was a senior rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, his “senior sermon” included the Torah text that we connect on Pesach to the Four Children. (A senior sermon is the rite of passage for rabbinical students delivered in front of the student’s family, friends, and community of learners.) The soon-to-be-a-rabbi’s teachers, who used to be the judges of the senior sermon, were known to the rabbinical students as “murderers row.” I had always heard the names of these judges, Heschel, Lieberman, Finkelstein, Ginsburg, mentioned with awe by my father and his contemporaries. And since the Seminary Synagogue of those days was a place of adult decorum, my presence, at the age of five months, was limited to being in my mother’s arms in the back of the room. As my father mentioned each of the Four Children I let out a scream, a geshrai, to make my presence known. What else could a baby do when his father is wondering out loud about which kind of child his son would be? But this was simply not the norm for the Seminary Synagogue in those days. And so, upon my outburst, the great scholars of JTS, all assembled in the front row, turned and challenged, “Who’s that baby?” Whereupon my father sheepishly replied, “That’s my son.”
Years later, when I began my own rabbinical studies at JTS, I shared with my father how excited I was to be studying with such spiritual giants. My father looked me in the eye, and said,
You’re studying with good teachers. I studied with The Greats.
These two family anecdotes illustrate a theme found in this week’s Torah Portion: the passing of a generation. The Parasha begins with Sarah’s death. Only at the end of the Parasha do we hear of Rebecca’s joining the family when:
“Isaac brought her to the tent of his mother, Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death. (Genesis 24:67)”
Freud’s analysis of mother/wife dynamics notwithstanding, we should notice that our entire Parasha find the first Jewish/Israelite family without a matriarch. A “Great One” has passed away.
The last Mishnah in Tractate Sotah connects closely with the emotional reaction to the death of a Gedolat HaDor/a leader of her time:
“When Rabbi Meir died, the composers of fables disappeared. When Ben Azzai died, the tireless students of Torah disappeared. … When Rabbi Akiva died, the glory of the Torah disappeared. When Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa died, doers of deeds disappeared. … When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai died, the brilliance of wisdom disappeared. … When Rabbi Yehudah died, humility and fear of sin disappeared. (Mishnah Sotah 9:15)”
The death of a generation can make the surviving generation feel lost. At my Thanksgiving and Pesach table, the absence of my beloved relatives who have died is as much the focus as anything else. The most mundane of all rituals becomes a looming question: who will make the toast, and be the new ‘rocks’ for our family now that our patriarchs and matriarchs isn’t here? Perhaps we can’t make a toast. These thoughts are, of course, natural parts of the experience of time. They are also ragged, raw, and pressing, as each evening passes, and as each new day arrives.
I feel this shift in generations in my own life. It feels that, just yesterday I was a child, and today I am a father. People say “Rabbi Creditor” and I still, every once in a while, look over my shoulder for my father.
I am the next generation. I am a father. I am a rabbi. Those things that once were the domain of the older generation are now within mine, as is the blessed burden that accompanies them.
My mentor, Rabbi William Lebeau of the Rabbinical School at JTS, taught me the Gemara that comments on the Mishnah from Sotah, which clearly remains concerned with the role of a new generation of leadership. The Mishnah had stated that “when Rabbi Yehudah died, humility and fear of sin disappeared.” The later Gemara records the feelings of the following generations of rabbis:
“Rabbi Joseph said to the recording secretary, ‘Do not include when reciting this Mishnah the word ‘humility’, because I am here.’ And Rabbi Nachman said to the recording secretary, ‘Do not include when reciting this Mishnah the words ‘fear of sin’, because I am here.’ (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Sotah 49b)”
Rabbi Joseph is, ironically, defending his right to be recognized as humble. The humor of the moment is clear, and so is the implication. Rabbi Joseph is effectively saying,
“Don’t you dare claim that humility and wisdom and Torah and deeds are gone! The greats of yesterday had these traits! And the world needed them to have them! And now it is my generation’s responsibility to embody those qualities!”
The Aramaic uses a two-word phrase to express Rabbi Joseph’s passionate claim: “Ika Ana/I am here!”
The ability to say “Ika Ana” is sorely needed in our world.
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105) wonders about Rebecca’s ability to be the next matriarch, and quotes the following midrash:
“Isaac brought Rebeccah to the tent and, behold, she was Sarah, his mother! That is to say, she followed Sarah’s example. For as long as Sarah lived, a candle burned from Erev Shabbat to Erev Shabbat, and there was a blessing in the challah dough, and the cloud of God’s Presence was attached to the tent. When she died, all these things disappeared. And when Rebecca came, they returned. (Rashi on Genesis 24:67)”
I didn’t study with the greats the father encountered. But I studied with greats – the teachers of my generation.
It is time for the glory of the past to take its place at the table of the present.
May we each and all be blessed to recognize our roles in shaping the destinies of our own lives and say, with hearts full of memory and awe, “Ika Ana/I am here.”