Shavuot I 5779: Grandparents
What a great blessing it is to be here today in celebration of the grandparents in our community and of the new grandparents in particular. We did this today because we wanted to recognize becoming a grandparent as a distinct moment in life, and a distinct role in a family and in society. Just this week I heard someone say, “If I knew how good being a grandparent was, I would have skipped having kids and gone straight to that!” Of course, it doesn’t work that way, but being a grandparent can come with its particular pleasures and joys.
But why recognize this today, on Shavuot? Well, I’ll fully admit that in part it was a ploy to get you to come to shul on what is often an under-appreciated holiday. But it is nonetheless appropriate to recognize grandparents on this holiday.
Shavuot, in addition to its ancient agricultural significance, is known as Zman Matan Torahteinu, the time of the giving of the Torah. It is a day that we recall, as we read about in this morning Torah reading, how we all stood at the base of Mt. Sinai and experienced the revelation of Torah.
In the Talmud (Kiddushin 30a), the sage Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that, “Anyone who teaches his grandchild Torah, the verse ascribes him credit as though he received it from Mount Sinai.” Yehoshua ben Levi learns this out from a passage in the Book of Deuteronomy that warns the people not to forget what they learned in the desert and to pass the Torah on to their children and grandchildren. The following verse mentions the day that they stood before God at Sinai. From this juxtaposition, Yehoshua ben Levi infers that there is some connection between the experience of Sinai and the act of teaching Torah to one’s grandchild.
We can understand why. The revelation at Sinai was all about forging a connection and covenant between the entire Jewish people and God. We all stood there in some spiritual sense and pledged to observe and to listen to the Torah, to put its teachings at the center of our lives. Part of this, it necessarily follows, is passing those teachings on to the next generation and to the one after that. So this kind of intergenerational exchange, this transmission of wisdom from grandparents to grandchildren, can be understood as replicating the revelation at Sinai itself. Perhaps, then, this comparison between Sinai and grandparents is a way of emphasizing the importance of grandparents passing on their wisdom to their grandchildren.
We see this occur in another text associated with Shavuot, the Book of Ruth. That short story tells of Naomi and Ruth, and mother- and daughter-in-law who find themselves destitute after their husbands die. Through a series of events characterized by kindness and lawfulness all around, Ruth finds herself marrying her late husband’s distant relative Boaz, in order to produce a son who will carry on her late husband’s name and inheritance.
Sure enough, Ruth and her new husband Boaz produce a son and name him Obed. Even though Naomi is not biologically the child’s grandmother, she nonetheless seems to function in that capacity. In particular, she holds the child to her bosom and becomes its omenet, a word that can mean foster-mother or nurse. In any event, Naomi plays an important role in raising this child. The other women of the community bless Naomi that this child “will renew your life and sustain your old age” (Ruth 3:15). Perhaps they meant that this child would somehow replace her deceased sons or grow up to provide for her livelihood after years of living in poverty. But they may have also meant these words spiritually: that this grandchild would give Naomi a renewed perspective on life and spiritual sustenance as she grew older. I’m sure the grandparents in the room might identify with those sentiments.
As it was in ancient days, so is it now. A recent study found that grandparents play a very important role in the development of their grandchildren’s identity. A new initiative called the Jewish Grandparents Network is trying to mobilize the Jewish community, and Jewish grandparents in particular, to help connect their adult children and young grandchildren with Jewish life.
As part of the launch of this initiative, they conducted a national survey of Jewish grandparents with over 7000 respondents. Some of the results, as summarized by the journalist Margory Ingall: “47% of grandparents lived within an hour of their grandkids, and 39% lived more than five hours away. Ninety-four percent found grandparenting to be a joyful experience. Sixteen percent struggled to balance grandparenting with their other demands. … Eleven percent said grandparenting was often stressful, and 19% said their adult children don’t fully appreciate all they do. Nearly half of the grandparents had a child who’d married a non-Jew, but only 20% had grandchildren being raised solely in another faith. ”
Interestingly, the survey also broke down Jewish grandparents into 5 groups, based on how they answered a set of questions about their experience as a grandparent. 36% were what the survey identified as faithful or joyous transmitters—grandparents who were involved in their grandchildren’s lives, were themselves active Jews, and who place a high priority in inculcating Jewish identity in their grandchildren. 23% are so-called “engaged secularists”—grandparents involved in their grandchildren’s lives, but who placed a lower priority on modeling Jewish practice or affiliation. 20% were “wistful outsiders”—grandparents who for various reasons like ill health, distance, or strained familial relationships, were less involved in their grandchildren’s lives than they would prefer. A final 21% were non-transmitters, Jewish grandparents who themselves were less Jewishly engaged and did not seek to transmit Jewish identity to their grandchildren.
The big conclusion from the study, however, is just how varied the experiences of Jewish grandparents are. Today’s Jewish grandparents tend to be active, engaged people who are often involved in their family’s lives and their own interests—certainly not your bubbe’s bubbe. As Jewish educator Ron Wolfson, himself a 69-year old grandfather who has advised on this project, explains, ““When my grandparents were 70, they were old … healthier and more active boomers today, given the resources of the internet and FaceTime, allow this generation to be far more connected with its grandchildren. We’re looking at a golden age of Jewish grandparenting. ” Grandparents today also confront all of the social changes of the most recent generations, from the rise of intermarried and LGBTQ families, to the economic instability sometimes faced by Gen-X and Millennial parents, to families spread out over wide geographic distance.
Another important conclusion, though, from this study is that grandparenting is not always a positive experience. Due to strained relationships or clashes of lifestyle and values, grandparents may not have a positive role in their grandchildren’s lives, or any role at all. This painful experience, which perhaps some of you have had, also emerges from the data and must be acknowledged as well.
Nonetheless, Shavuot reminds of how precious the grandparent-grandchild relationship can be, and how important grandparents are in the intergenerational transmission of Torah. As we stand again at Sinai, may we be privileged to transmit what we heard there so many generations ago onward and onward. Hag Sameah.