Friday, May 4, 2018

Parashat Emor: Grandparents

            Shabbat Shalom! Shabbat Shalom! Together we count the omer.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer.

Hayom chamishah ush’loshim yom, sheheim chamisha shavuot la’omer.

Today is the 35th day of the Omer. The mystical realm of this day is Malchut sheb’hod, which is majesty within glory or the nobility of humility. The Biblical woman Rabbi Jill Hammer associates with this day is Achsah, the daughter of Caleb. Caleb is one of the 12 spies that Moses sends to scout the Promised Land, and he and Joshua are the only two to come back ready to conquer the land. Because of this, they become leaders of the conquest. While Joshua is the commander-in-chief, Caleb remains pretty important and in a position to divvy up land at his discretion, within the confines of the tribes God assigns to specifics large territories of the Promised Land. So when he marries off his daughter Achsah and she asks for a dowry of land with plenty of water, he is able to accommodate her and her new husband with property on the wellsprings of the Judean Hills. A midrash tells us that Caleb was Miriam’s husband, and Achsah her daughter. When she asks for water resources, she is really asking to security to be able to pass down to her own children her mother’s legacy of providing water to her people. It is important for Achsah’s children to know about their grandmother and have this connection to her, even though she has passed away in the desert before the land conquest. Achsah prioritizes her lineage and legacy over all other concerns and shows us a great humble nobility in her dowry request.
            This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Emor. Many laws are given in this portion, including the basic commandments to observe Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, but many are specific to the Kohanim. One such kohein-specific law is to stay away from dead bodies and cemeteries. The only exceptions the Torah names are for the parent, sibling, or child of the Kohein. My second graders at Gesher asked this week, “Why not grandparents?” I answered what I usually do, that grandparents are generally excluded from traditional laws around mourning for immediate family members because when these laws were written, people didn’t live as long so grandchildren didn’t have as much time to form a strong bond they know to grieve over by the time a grandparent passes away. But as I’ve thought more about it this week, I’m not sure that’s right. People also had children younger, so it seems that grandchildren and grandparents would have some time together even with lower life expectancies.
So, I decided to look more into it. There doesn’t seem to be a satisfying halakhic reason that grandparents are not included in the list of immediate family members in this week’s Torah portion or in the rules around traditional shiva practices. However, there is precedent to believe that indeed, the bonds between grandchildren and grandparents have been cherished and valued throughout Jewish history. On the topic of mourning, there is a brief story in the Talmud, Moed Katan 20b, of a man named Amemar who rent his garments and sat shiva for his grandson. The story is used as reasoning for the halakha that mourners must stand when performing kriyah, so the element of grandfather-grandson relationship is not dwealt upon. It is significant though, if we as Reform Jews look at the Talmud as a source of all traditions of the past and remember to look there when the time comes for reconfiguring some tradition of the present.
Further, another section of the Talmud, Kiddushin 30a, tells us that a grandparent has as much duty to teach Judaism to their grandchildren as do parents to children. The rabbis base this on a quote from Deuteronomy, not far from our V’Ahavta verses, that says “You shall teach these words to your children and to your children’s children.” The Talmud teaches, “The children of our children, we consider as our children,” and the halakha around that is codified by both the Mishneh Torah and the Shulchan Aruch. From this teaching, we have derived an understanding in some Jewish circles that a marker of successful Jewish parenting is having a Jewish grandchild.
Of course, the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren is different that between parents and children, but not any less important and valuable. We carry on our grandparents’ legacies and learn so much from them. Although she never lived there herself, my grandmother was a connection to an old world that was destroyed and I longed to know more about. I loved when she would tell me the stories of her own parents and their escape from Vilnius, how they spoke so many languages and she regretted how much Yiddish she lost. When I took a January Term Yiddish class my last semester in undergrad, I would call her every day after class to tell her what we learned that day. Sometimes it would jog her memories, other times she would say she didn’t remember anything from that vocab list, and other times she would correct my pronunciation. When I visited Vilnius the following fall, I thought of my grandmother at every turn, the beautiful sights she would appreciate, the friendly people she would enjoy socializing with, the pathetic excuses for memorials to our people she would mourn over. She was not one for travel, and I know she had a lot of vicarious travel anxiety for me while I was there, but I know when I came back she was so happy I could bring her pictures and souvenirs of the place her parents came from. Throughout the next year, I had dinner with her every Wednesday night and learned more about her life, her childhood, and her years with my grandfather, who died before I was born, than I had ever known. When I moved to NYC for rabbinical school, it was harder to see her as much, but I would call her most Saturdays on my walk home from shul. A half an hour was about as long as she could talk before she tired out, and my shul was a mile from my house, so it was perfect for an ambling walk conversation. When she died, the walk home became so lonely. I started calling friends and using that time to catch up with others who lived far away, but it wasn’t quite the same. She wasn’t a shul goer herself, and I don’t think she ever quite understood my drive to be a rabbi, but she was a proud Jew and a proud grandmother, and if she had lived to see me ordained, I think Ner Shalom would have one more regular viewer on our livestream.
Grandchildren, call your grandparents this Shabbat. Grandparents, call your grandchildren this Shabbat, if they are old enough to come to the phone. If not, maybe FaceTime or Skype your children so you can see your grandbabies and they can see you. The time shared between grandparents and grandchildren is invaluable. May we cherish the moments we have in these relationships, and pass on the legacies we inherit from them. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.  

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