Reflections on the way grandparents affect our lives, including some surprising grandparent Torah facts.
From Generation to Generation to Generation to Generation
With Thanksgiving around the corner and winter break not far behind, I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about grandparents. My children are blessed to have four loving grandparents in their lives, and Jessica and I marvel sometimes at the subtle and not-so-subtle influences our parents have on our kids.
Sociological research lately has revealed that grandparents play an important role in their grandchildren’s Jewish upbringing. A study conducted in 2015 showed: “Having close ties to Jewish grandparents had a direct effect on a variety of outcomes, including identifying as Jewish by religion [and] celebrating Jewish holidays…” and it concluded, “For all childhood experiences, Jewish grandparents should be viewed as a critical resource.”
It’s clear that grandparents are role models for grandchildren. But it’s not always obvious—and in every family not always the same--how that influence emerges. In some families, grandparents are primary caregivers; while in families like mine, visits with grandparents are treasured special events. So how, with so much diversity, can the impact of grandparents be so widespread?
As is the case with most Jewish topics, this isn’t a new question.
Usually when we think about the characters of the bible, we don’t think of grandparents and their grandchildren. Parents and in-laws, siblings and cousins, uncles and even an aunt or two take center stage time and again. The influence of grandparents is usually kept in the background.
Nevertheless, when we look carefully at the heroes of the bible—just as when we look carefully at our own lives—the role of grandparents in our sacred stories becomes more clear.
For instance, Noah’s grandfather is… Anyone know? Methuselah. Though it’s not spelled out directly, we may infer the significance that the savior of humankind is the grandson of the Bible’s longest-lived man.
As well, though we often think of Abraham leaving his homeland for Canaan at the behest of God’s command, he actually started the journey with his father, Terach. After Abraham’s brother dies, we read, “Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot … and his daughter-in-law Sarai …, and they set out together … for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there” (Gen. 11:31). Terach had his failings and flaws, but our text gives him credit for starting the journey. I believe we’re meant to read his grandson, Lot, in a similar way.
On perhaps a more positive note, take Moses’ brother, Aaron. His grandson is Pinchas, a prominent (if controversial) leader in several books of the bible. Pinchas is a warrior and a priest, unflaggingly dedicated to the service of God and the maintenance of God’s laws. In many ways, Pinchas inherits Aaron’s mantle in the same way that Joshua—from a different family—inherits Moses’.
And to take one more example, consider the genealogy given at the end of the Book of Ruth. There we learn that the grandfather of King David was Obed, and Obed himself was raised by his grandmother Naomi. The entire community honors and celebrates this hands-on relationship between grandmother and grandson, and their love lays the groundwork for the raising of Israel’s most beloved king.
These examples and others I could have mentioned carry a common theme: the impact of grandparents on the lives of their grandchildren is profound even if it doesn’t blatantly appear on a daily basis. Sometimes the influence is subtle and in the background; but grandparents can also, of course, find appropriate times to meaningfully connect with and help guide their grandchildren.
We see both models in the figure of Jacob. As flawed as he is as a parent, Jacob—I suggest—has a meaningful relationship with at least one grandparent, and he has a different sort of relationship with at least two grandchildren. Grandparents today (or parents mediating relationships between their children and their parents) might take to heart the two different modes of relationship embodied in the figure of Jacob.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read a curious verse. After working for his uncle, Laban, for twenty years, Jacob finally flees and heads back home. He returns to Beth El, where he had seen the dream of the ladder stretching to heaven; and there, we are told, “Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, died” (Gen. 35:8). This character has been mentioned once before: the text relates that Rebecca traveled with her nurse when she left her home to meet and marry Isaac (Gen. 24:59). Rebecca had been described as very close to her mother, so when she set off on the journey of her lifetime, we can imagine Rebecca taking comfort in having a mother figure to accompany her. Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, is a symbol of nurture and protection.
It is unclear why, in this week’s Torah portion, she’s traveling with Jacob. Perhaps she was sent by Rebecca to fetch him from Laban’s home. (So says Rashi). Or perhaps she’s been living with Jacob’s family all along, “raising Jacob’s children out of respect for Rebecca and due to her love for her.” (That’s Nachmanides.) All that we do know is that her death is mentioned in the text. This is no small matter: the deaths of Leah and even Rebecca herself are never recorded! Indeed, Jacob buries her under an oak in Beth El and names it Alon Bachut, the “oak of weeping.”
In my view, Deborah is basically Jacob’s grandmother. Her connection to his mother, Rebecca, was motherly, and the verse in this week’s portion shows us how important she was to Jacob as well. We can only speculate about the nature of their relationship, but we can deduce that, if nothing else, they were intimately close.
Deborah, it would seem, represents the grandparent whose influence is profound but understated. Perhaps even distant. Toward the end of the book of Genesis, we’ll see Jacob embody a different approach of more active engagement with grandchildren.
Finally reunited with his beloved son Joseph, and nearing the end of his life, Jacob meets Joseph’s own two boys, Manasseh and Ephraim. Jacob informs Joseph that he’s literally adopting Joseph’s sons as his own. He hugs them and draws them close, and he offers them a blessing, favoring—once again—the younger son over the older. Here, we see Jacob stepping in, ensuring the continuation of his own legacy, and taking bold, dramatic action to participate in the life of his grandchildren.
Jacob, once so affected by his own grandmother, becomes an involved grandparent himself. In these two relationships, he stands for overlapping but distinct roles. Most grandparents in our own day and age can find ways to inhabit one or both of these roles in their own family’s lives.
There’s no one right way to be a grandparent – so if you’re looking for the silver bullet or the golden ticket, I’m afraid you’re waiting in vain. But we can draw some inspiration and encouragement from our tradition, which has, from its earliest days, represented the significant influence grandparents have on their families and demonstrated that there many ways to happily, lovingly, and respectfully inhabit this important and meaningful role.
Lee Hendler is the co-founder of the Jewish Grandparents Network, an organization that celebrates grandparents—both Jewish and not Jewish— “as an essential influence in Jewish family life.” She recently stated, “Grandparents are a hidden treasure in plain sight. We are a living bridge from our past to our Jewish future.”
There are many ways to be this bridge, to be involved in the unfolding intergenerational life of a family. As we gather around our holiday tables in the coming weeks, let us consider how each of us has benefited from the generations that have come before. And as we express our gratitude for the blessings we and our children have received from them, let us honor the grandparents in our lives as the sacred treasures that they are.
 Such as Laban (to Jacob) and David (to the “sons of Zeruiah”).
 I’m thinking of Rachel asking for some of the mandrakes collected by her nephew, Reuben (Gen. 30:14) and the ambiguous relationship between Michal and the children of Merab (cf. I Sam. 18:19, II Sam. 21:8, and II Sam. 6:23: Perhaps Michal is a surrogate mother for her nephews).
 Similarly, we come to learn that Moses’ children, Gershom and Eliezer, live with their mother and grandfather, both of them Midianites (Ex. 18:5). While Jethro is a model of justice and a close friend to Moses, he nevertheless pledges loyalty to his own tribe, who ultimately become the enemies of Israel. Though unstated directly, perhaps this explains why the only other mention of Moses’ offspring is when Gershom makes a cameo appearance as the father of an idolatrous priest (Judges 18:30). Jethro’s influence may be evident in Gershom; and Moses’ lack of influence may be evident in Gershom’s son.
 Ruth 4:16-17.
 Such as Pharaoh and Moses (via Pharaoh’s Daughter), David and Rehoboam (II Chron. 11:17), and Abijam and Absalom (I Kings 15:3 and II Chron. 11:21-22).
 See Gen. 24:28, 53, and 55.
 Another midrashic understanding is that the mention of Deborah here is meant to stand in for the death of Rebecca (see Ramban for that view also).
 Genesis 48.
 https://www.jpost.com/j-spot/jewish-grandparents-network-offers-virtual-jewish-experiences-for-families-684171. This quote was repeated, nearly verbatim, by David Raphael in his opinion piece in eJewishPhilanthropy this week: https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/grandparents-are-a-key-to-a-vibrant-jewish-future/.
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