As the list above indicates there is probably nothing more divisive in families then who gets what after a death. Where there is a will there’s often a war rather than a way.
My grandfather had a farm in Africa, which he left for his grandchildren. Part of the farm he gifted to the University of Witwatersrand because of the caves on it. Being an old Litvak more interested in cattle than caves, he was happy to give it to the excited anthropologists and paleontologists, who for many years had been studying fossils found there.
Today the caves are part of a World Heritage site because of the many hominid (Mrs. Piles and Little Foot) and other fossils dating back more than 4 million years. They are called the Sterkfontein caves which is Afrikaans for strong spring possibly because of the underground lake in one of the caves. On Google, the site boasts that they are now home to a top restaurant and conference facilities.
The caves had been donated to the University long before my grandfather died and every Christmas, he would receive a box of chocolates in grateful thanks! The farm was sold off a few years after his death much to the chagrin of some family members who felt that it was sold off too cheaply. Despite this, I felt that my grandfather left a legacy, even if unrecognised-and I couldn’t find his name mentioned in any official records. Louis or Leiba Reiss of Siauliai (Shavel in Yiddish) left his mark on Africa and a legacy of survival and boldness -and ok we won’t mention some of his curious peccadilloes…
Leiba was a part of those intrepid Jewish Lithuanians known as Litvaks who left their well-established shtetels, their famous yeshivot and strong Jewish intellectual tradition for the wilds of Africa. They created a remarkable Jewish community in South Africa known for its homogeneity and strong traditional and Zionist values. They have continued to contribute a huge amount to South Africa in every field from the arts and business to law, literature and political activism.
My Zeida was one of the pioneers, no intellectual, but a sharp and savvy businessman. I don’t know if he ever regretted giving the caves away but I like to think he would have seen it as a present to be proud of, a way of giving back to a country he had gotten so much from.
When I was in my 20s I wrote a poem about him:
Zaidie, the family sold your farm for a song
Gone all those sad calves catching blades in the late velded noon
boerewors in the barefoot sun…
Your years of trapping this strange, solitary earth
Now gone with the moment of their impulse.…
I’ve come back to the old caves
The ones you never left to any of us (nobody can really inherit what’s underground)
And lately I’ve begun to dig
I hope to discover how deep you dug into Africa.
Looking back now, I think he dug pretty deep into Africa. I am happy he didn’t leave the caves to us as I imagine that could have created family conflict, broiges or what South African Jews call fareebels. Maybe, I am just seeing it through rose coloured spectacles along the lines of George Bernard Shaw‘s
inimitable, “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance !“
Notwithstanding this, from my grandfather, I’ve learnt how migrants have a particular energy that they bring to their new homelands, that their boldness and entrepreneurship add colour and value. They remind us of our responsibility to all migrants, something Australia like many other countries is still struggling to accept. We still abandon some migrants in our cities and on remote islands. He also reminds me that the real legacy is not a financial one, the poorest person can leave their children the richest inheritance.
That’s what legacy is about for us Jews. Even though the Torah describes itself as an inheritance: “Moses commanded us the Torah as an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut.33:4), it is understood as something you may have legitimate title to but you still need positive action to acquire. So explains Rabbi Sacks who adds that Torah is like a business you inherit, not a title (like a Duke) that you may automatically receive. It must be earned if it is to be sustained. In other words, a true legacy is a challenge to the next generation, an aspiration rather than a given.
This may also explain why at the very end of the book of Numbers that we read this week (Parashat Mattot, Massei) the Torah returns to the issue of the 5 magnificent daughters of Zelophehad, and their claim to the inheritance of their father. They want the land, not because of its monetary value but because of its value in perpetuating the name of their father. As Sacks puts it “we inherit what we truly love.”
One of the saddest things today in the Jewish community is the many Jews who are abandoning the legacy of their parents and grandparents. We need to re-examine the message we are giving to the next generation, to ensure they recognise that we are handing them a legacy of love, not a fossil but a future. An inheritance of wisdom and wonder. Ernest Hemingway expresses the idea beautifully: “I had any inheritance from my father. It was the moon and the sun. And though I roam all over the world, the spending of it is never done”.
If you leave a will like this you ensure creativity and compassion rather than conflict and division, for the next generation.