How many of you grew up near your grandparents? How many of you are now grandparents? How many of you live near your grandchildren? Isn’t that sad? One of the major changes in society today is that while 2 generations ago, most of us lived in the same city as our grandparents. Today, hardly anyone does. I believe that Congress ought to pass a law that grandchildren are not allowed to live more than 50 miles away from their grandparents. Most young children today think their grandparents live at the airport, because this is where they go to pick them up when they come to visit.
What’s the old joke, why do grandparents and grandchildren get along so well? Because they have a common enemy! But in reality, grandparents and grandchildren get along so well because they need each other. For grandparents, grandchildren are their link to the future. For grandchildren, grandparents are their link to the past, their heritage. Animals know their children—they don’t know their grandchildren. But human beings do! It’s one of those things that make us human.
In Jewish tradition, Abraham is known as Avraham Avinu (Abraham our father) and Sarah is known as Sarah Imeynu (Sarah our mother). They’re the archetypes of what it means to be a parent. Who would be the Torah’s model grandparent? One might suggest Father Jacob because, from the Torah text, he was the only patriarch who seemed to have a relationship with his grandchildren. But let me suggest someone whom most of you have probably have never even heard of—someone whose name appears only a couple of times in the Torah—one of them is in today’s Torah reading—and once in the Midrash: Chur. Who was Chur?
This week’s parsha (Ex. 38:22) mentions Betzalel, the master craftsman who supervised the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The Torah refers to him in a strange way: Betzalel ben Uri Ben Chur, the son of his father Uri, and the grandson of his grandfather Chur. We don’t usually mention the grandfather when identifying someone. What did Chur do that was so special to deserve this distinction?
Let me share 2 possibilities with you. The 1st one comes from the Midrash on the story of the Golden Calf. The Sages ask, “Why did Aaron give in so docilely and build the Golden Calf? Why didn’t he refuse?” They base their answer on the passage (Ex. 32:5): vayiven Mizbeyach l’fanav (He (Aaron) built an altar before it [the Golden Calf]). The words in the Torah have no vowels, and therefore, the phrase can also be read, vayaveyn mizavu-ach l’fanav (and he understood from him who was slaughtered before him). The Midrash (Vayikra Raba 10:3) tells us that Chur tried to stand up to the mob and stop them from building the Golden Calf. But in their frenzy, they attacked and killed him. And when Aaron saw this, he gave in.
According to this Midrash, Chur was a martyr. Undoubtedly the story of his bravery and martyrdom was remembered in his family, and told to his grandchildren. Perhaps this inspired Betzalel to devote his life to the service of Gd.
Perhaps it was the way Chur lived, and not his death, which inspired Betzalel. Perhaps Chur paid attention to him, walked with him, talked to him, played with him, prayed with him, and therefore Betzalel grew up to become a loyal and loving servant of Gd—trying to be just like his grandfather. Either way, the story of Chur stands as a proof of how much a grandparent can influence a grandchild—by his own life story and by spending time with him.
The problem is: how can those of us—like myself—who live many hundreds or even thousands of miles away from our grandchildren, do what Chur did? How can we influence and help to teach our grandchildren “from a distance?” Dr. Michael Mantell, a psychologist in San Diego, sometimes writes a “Dear Abby” column in the local Jewish newspaper. Someone wrote to him, asking for guidance on how to be a good grandparent when you live far away from your grandchildren.
I must tell you that the very idea of writing to an expert to ask how to be a good grandparent sounds a bit strange. Can you imagine our Bubbies and Zeidis writing to a consultant, asking for advice on how to be a good grandparent? They did it instinctively. They felt that if you love your grandchildren to pieces, that if you care about them with all your heart, that you’ll know what to do. Since they saw us often, they didn’t worry about saying the wrong word or doing the wrong thing. If they did—nu, they would make up for it with an extra bowl of chicken soup or batch of cookies.
Dr. Mantell offers a number of practical suggestions on how to be a grandparent from a distance. 4 of them are fairly obvious. One of them, I think, is brilliant. Let me share them with you. 1st, he says, if your grandchild says something bad to you, don’t take it personally. Kids say the darnedest things, and if you don’t make a big fuss over it, they’ll get over it and forget about it. So, if your grandchild says, “I’m never going to talk to you again,” don’t get upset because “never” in the life of a small child is usually less than 3 or 4 hours. Whereas, if you demand an apology or make an issue of it, then you’ll only embarrass the child and ensure he doesn’t forget and that will get you nowhere.
His next suggestion is that we should try to spend time alone with each grandchild, if possible, when we visit. It may be hard, but try to take each one separately for a walk, to the movies, for ice cream, play a game of checkers or whatever it is that you will both enjoy, so that each one feels special—that each one had some time which is just for them.
The next suggestion is also a good one. Children have a special relationship with their grandparents. They look upon them as different. A child might lie to his parents, but not usually to his grandparents. Some days a kid hates his parents, but never his grandparents. And so, grandparents can ask the hard questions that parents are unable to ask, such as, “Why are your eyes so red? Why are you doing so poorly in school? Are you on drugs?” And so, without betraying their trust a loving, understanding grandparent can discuss the dangers of drugs with a child whom he loves.
These are all good, but fairly obvious. What impresses me is a suggestion made almost in passing that’s so brilliant I thought, “Why didn’t I think of it?” He says that grandparents shouldn’t send a lot of expensive gifts to their grandchildren. There’s no reason to feel guilty just because you live far away, and no one should try to make up for it by buying their love. You then open yourself up to being caught in the trap of how to top yourself next year, and what to buy them after you’ve already given them far more than they need or ought to have.
And now comes the masterful suggestion. Instead of giving them expensive gifts, how about regularly sending them emails, pictures and home videos; how about communicate with them often using Facetime or Skype. We can learn how to use this technology for the sake of our grandchildren. Your grandchildren can show you if you can’t figure it out the next time you visit. And then he says, “Why not record for them stories that they can listen to at bedtime—stories that express your values and embody your memories. If you can’t be there to put them to sleep—much as you would like to—then what could be nicer than recording a message of love or reading them a bedtime story that they can listen to as they fall asleep?”
Isn’t this a great idea! Why didn’t I think of that, back when my children were very young? Wouldn’t it have been great for my parents and in-laws to read to them—via recordings—to share with them their favorite adventure stories, funny stories, stories that embody their values, stories about growing up in Brooklyn or Eastern Europe? If you’re separated from your grandchildren by distance, this is a really cool way to be part of their lives—telling them a bedtime story on a regular basis with a recording.
Let me conclude with a song, “My Zeidi,” from the popular Jewish music group, Megama. I sang it once on Yom Kippur many years ago, and the reaction was very powerful. Listen carefully to the lyrics and to the question that it raises at the very end, for that question is one of the central spiritual questions of our lives:
My Zeidi lived with us in my parents’ home.
He used to laugh; he put me on his knee.
He spoke about his life in Poland,
He spoke with a bitter memory.
He spoke about the soldiers who would beat him.
They laughed at him; they tore his long black coat.
And he spoke about a Synagogue that they burned down,
And the crying that was heard beneath the smoke.
But Zeidi made us laugh; Zeidi made us sing,
And Zeidi made a Kiddush Friday night.
And Zeidi, Oh my Zeidi, how I loved him so,
And Zeidi used to teach me wrong from right.
His eyes lit up when he would teach me Torah.
He taught me every line so carefully.
He spoke about our slavery in Egypt,
And how Gd took us out to make us free.
But winter went by; summer came along.
I went to camp to run and play,
And when I came back home, they said, “Zeidi’s gone.”
And all his books were packed and stored away.
I don’t know how or why it came to be.
It happened slowly over many years.
We just stopped being Jewish like my Zeidi was.
And no one cared enough to shed a tear.
But Zeidi made us laugh; Zeidi made us sing,
And Zeidi made a Seder Pesach night.
And Zeidi, Oh my Zeidi, how I loved him so.
And Zeidi used to teach me wrong from right.
Many winters went by, many summers came along,
And now my children sit in front of me.
And who will be the Zeidi of my children?
Who will be their Zeidi, if not me?
Who will be the Zeidis of our children?
Who will be their Zeidis, if not we?
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis