Jonathan Sacks

Grandparents (Vayechi, Covenant & Conversation)

"To bless grandchildren and be blessed by them, to teach them and to be taught by them – these are the highest Jewish privilege." - Rabbi Sacks (Image courtesy of The Rabbi Sacks Legacy).

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…But now God has even let me see your children. (Gen. 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 the time to come] Israel will use you as a blessing. They will say, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’ (Gen. 48:20)

So we do to this day, with these very words. 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 Tanach 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 they do so with a full heart. That is why this blessing by Jacob to 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:

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 your children’s children.’(Deut. 4:10-11; Kiddushin 30a)

The Talmud Yerushalmi puts it differently. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi used to listen, every Friday, to his grandson reciting the weekly parsha. One week, he entered the bathhouse, and after he had begun bathing he remembered that he had not yet heard the weekly parsha from his grandson. So he immediately got up to leave 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 should not interrupt the process. He replied, “Is this such a small thing in your eyes? For whoever hears the parsha from his grandchild is as if he heard it directly from Mount Sinai.” (Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:2)

According to the Talmud Bavli, it is a great privilege is to teach your grandchildren Torah. According to the Talmud 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 saying that both are true.

My late father, of blessed memory, had to leave school at the age of 14 to begin working to support his family, and as a result he never had the full Jewish or secular education that he would have wanted. I remember from my childhood that – as we walked home from shul on a Shabbat morning – I would be full of questions. “Dad, why do we do this?” “Why did we do that?” My father always gave me the same answer. He said, “Jonathan, I didn’t have a Jewish education, so I can’t answer your questions. But one day, you will have the education that I didn’t have. And when that happens, you will teach me the answers to those questions.” These words changed my life.

The greatest gift we can give a child or a grandchild is what we empower and allow them to teach us. As parents, we strive to give our children everything. There’s one thing we sometimes forget to give them, which is the chance for them to give something to us. And that, frankly, is the most important thing there is.

Give your children and your grandchildren the space to give to you. Let them become your teachers and let them be your inspiration. In doing so, you will help them become the people that they were destined to be, and you will help create the blessings God wants them to become.

With an exquisite sense of symmetry, just as we begin Shabbat with a grandparent’s blessing so we end it, in Maariv, with these words:

May you live to see your children’s children – peace be on Israel. (Psalm 128:6)”

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, who make war.

Jacob lives a life fraught with conflict and troubles. He knew much of revenge and war, of grudges and strife. But he died serene, and full of blessings. And before he died, he blessed his children and grandchildren.

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.

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  1. How can the story of Yaakov blessing Ephraim and Menashe inspire us to maintain our identity in challenging environments?
  2. How can the experience of being in exile – as with Ephraim and Menashe – impact a family’s cultural and religious identity over time?
  3. How do you think blessing one’s descendants influences family traditions and values across generations?

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” – Rabbi Sacks

About the Author
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020) was a global religious leader, philosopher, the author of more than 25 books, and moral voice for our time. He served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. Rabbi Sacks passed away in November 2020. His series of essays on the weekly Torah portion, entitled "Covenant & Conversation" will continue to be shared, and distributed around the world,
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