The following is the letter that I wrote my Young Israel of Oceanside community about what it means to me to be a grandfather:
I am writing this letter to you as so many thoughts swirl through my head about what it means to be a grandfather. My first grandchild, Tzofia Miriam, or Sophia, was born just a few weeks ago, when I was in Chicago visiting my father in a rehabilitation center. During my short trip in Chicago, I was helping to organize many of my father’s papers when I came across some that dealt with my mother’s funeral almost five years ago. On the one hand, I was upset at not being in New York and in the hospital when my first grandchild was born; on the other hand, perhaps being with my father and reflecting on my mother’s life at that very special time sensitized me more to the essence of mesora. Here I was, attending to my father’s needs and reflecting on my mother’s life as my daughter was continuing her grandparents’ legacy through a child of her own, a child whose second name is named for my mother.
Indeed, the relationship between a grandparent and grandchild is a special one. Rav Soloveitchik notes that amongst our patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, it is Yaakov’s name (Yisrael) that came to represent an entire nation, and it is Yaakov who is called a “zaken,” an elder. “Jacob was the first patriarch to establish direct communication with his grandchildren. He was the first to make a solemn declaration, an historic pronouncement, which is responsible for the sense of closeness we still have with the past, thereby laying the foundation for the dialogue of the generations.”
The standardized blessing that we bestow upon our children on Friday nights, “Yesimcha Elokim k’Efraim v’chi’Menashe,” is one of a grandfather, Yaakov Avinu, blessing his grandchildren. Rabbi Sacks explains this relationship beautifully, describing it as “…one of love untroubled by tension or anxiety. When a grandparent blesses a grandchild he or she does so with a full heart. That is why this blessing by Jacob of his grandchildren became the model of blessing across the generations.” This explanation highlights the special love that a grandparent has towards a grandchild. Incorporating Rav Soloveitchik’s commentary, we can further understand that the blessing to our children every Friday night is a blessing of mesora. When we recite the blessing invoked by our patriarchal grandfather to his grandchildren, we are blessing our own children that God should shine His countenance upon them so that they will be passionate ambassadors of our mesora.
I received so many good wishes of mazal and bracha upon becoming a grandparent, with many telling me that now I’ve joined a “club” – the grandparent club, the best club ever! That pronouncement by so many reminded me of when I’d heard something similar but with a very different sentiment, when my mother passed away. Then too, people remarked to me that I joined the “club.” In that case, the Yizkor club. These clubs couldn’t be farther apart in the quality of their emotional states, but they both represent mesora – remembering the past and imparting it to the future. We confront our mortality by asserting that we live on through our children and grandchildren. In that way, grandparenthood is an awesome responsibility, with the potential for great rewards. The Gemara in Kiddushin (30a) cites the dictum of R. Yehoshua Ben Levi: “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 children’s children,’ and then it says: ‘The day you stood before God your Lord at Horeb.’”
Finally, being a grandfather means I am no longer “a young rabbi.” In fact, in my time as your rabbi, I have learned from my own life experiences as well as those you have shared with me. I have become sensitized to things I did not always see, and have a greater appreciation for the wonder and frailty of life. One thing that I have undoubtedly learned is not to take any blessing for granted, including the special blessing of being a grandparent. I know so many people who have not been blessed to find their soulmate. I know so many people who have not been blessed with children. I know so many people who have not been blessed with grandchildren. As I celebrate my blessings today, I am pained by the thought of those who are still waiting to celebrate theirs. It is my prayer that they should feel the joy they have been waiting for, soon. And may our community be blessed with many more occasions to celebrate together.