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Bridging the Generation Gap

Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, it was common to hear the expression, “generation gap.” This term was used to explain why my parents and the parents of my friends did not initially like Elvis or the music coming from “Motown,” the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other musical talent coming on to the scene. We were told things like, “This isn’t music; it is just a lot of noise!”

Then came my Bubie and Zayda to the rescue. They would remind my parents of their rapture with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Perry Como, and Mel Torme. They would chuckle and good-heartedly explain how they had to endure the change in “real” music from “chazzanut” and European opera, to what my parents were listening to growing up. Both of my grandfathers were from “the old country.” They couldn’t throw a ball overhand if their life depended on it. But they took the time and made a point to find out the difference between a ball and a strike, and who the best players in baseball were when they would talk with me.

In this week’s Torah portion, ויגש, Yosef’s brother, Yehuda, refers to their father, Yaakov, as אב זקן “ old father” and youngest brother, Benjamin, as ילד זקונים , “young child of his old age.” Both Rashi in his commentary and the Rambam in his Mishnah Torah refer at times to Yaakov as “the old one.” The Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik of blessed memory, saw in these two expressions the essence of the teacher/student relationship, the passing on of the “mesorah” linking generations in Torah values.

The Torah’s model for this process is epitomized by the grandfather/grandchild relationship. As the Rav pointed out, “Avraham and Yitzchak transmitted their spiritual heritage to their sons, not to their grandsons. Yaakov was the first of our patriarchs to study directly with his grandchildren.” The Torah, in next week’s reading, recounts Yaakov bestowing a blessing on Ephraim and Menashe endowing them with the status of sons. Yaakov was the first to bridge the generational divide.

The Rav pointed out five disciplines to our spiritual heritage that must be communicated, transmitted, and implanted by the grandfather into the very fabric of his grandchildren. First is to impart that Judaism teaches that man can live a disciplined and modest life guiding a person to holiness. Control over our sexual and appetitive instincts are but two specific examples. Second is the idea that discipline is required in the realm of human relationships and social interaction. Truthfulness, kindness and honesty are no less a part of our religious system than is keeping kosher or putting on tefilin. In other words, am I “glatt kosher” when I fill out my income tax form? A third domain to convey regards discipline over one’s inner life. Feelings of hatred and envy are destructive and our sacred heritage teaches we have the ability to rid ourselves of them.

The fourth unique aspect of the “mesorah” is that human growth can only be achieved by discipline in thought. This domain is not achieved by following a list of do’s and don’ts. Every society, culture and religion has that. Rather, it involves showing the child or student the unique methodology of approaching an understanding of our legal and philosophic systems. There is a system of thought unique to Judaism that opens the mind of the child and the student to the world of ideas. It is a system of thought that can then be applied to the investigation of other areas as well. This approach to learning arms a person with a methodology for conceptual analysis, classification, and techniques of inference. It is a process, however, that takes time and patience to develop.

Finally, and the hardest feature to transmit, is the feeling of joy and happiness that comes from doing and experiencing the life of mitzvot. We speak today in education of “experiential learning,” or “tactile learning.” Give the student something to do, to touch, that reinforces the learning or gives the learning a “real” dimension. This criterion is built right into the religious system of Judaism. But it is only transferable when the teacher and student or grandfather and grandchild participate in the same activities. How can you explain to someone, for example, how great Shabbat feels, smells and tastes when it is never experienced in all of its grandeur? The enjoyment and benefit from fulfilling each and every mitzvah is self-reinforcing, encouraging its repeated performance and perpetuation.

For these relationships to be effective and achieve their goal, great care, thought and attention must be given by the teacher/grandfather. How will he reach and relate to his student/grandchild? The initial meeting(s) must take place in the world of the student before moving to the domain of the teacher. Only then will the student respect and consider what the teacher has to say. Only then can the “elder” begin to build the bridge between the past and the future. 

As we finish the school year’s first academic semester at Posnack, let us keep in mind those benefits of a Jewish education outlined by the Rav. Unlike most cultures where the current generation is often antagonistic to its predecessors, the success of our Jewish future is inextricably tied to our ancient past. Teaching and showing our children that Judaism is as meaningful and rewarding for them today, right now, as it was for our grandparents, ancestors, patriarchs and matriarchs must be our educators’ credo. Thank you Bubie and Zayda!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan