Sermon delivered September 23, 2005, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
A distant relative, evacuated from New Orleans to San Antonio, and now trying to figure out what to do, paid me a supreme compliment last night. She said: “We feel that you are now in the place of your grandfather. When we lived in Houston, decades ago, when we were much younger, Irvin helped us figure out what would be best for us there. Now, you are advising us about what to do here, in our old age.”
My maternal grandfather, Irvin Shlenker, died when I was just eight years old. Young as I was, though, I knew that he was a great man. I am surely not worthy of the compliment that was bestowed upon me last night. Yes, I am trying to be helpful to this couple, whom I really did not know before they ended up in San Antonio. And yet, to paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bentsen, I knew Irvin Shlenker, and I’m no Irvin Shlenker.
My grandfather was not the wealthiest Jewish man in Houston, but he was the most philanthropic. He was not the most intelligent man among his friends and business associates – in fact, some say he wasn’t a good businessman at all – but they repeatedly chose him as their leader. With a Christmas tree in his own home every December, he certainly wasn’t the most pious Jew in town, but Rabbis and Jewish community professionals would turn to him for counsel. The ethical instruction to his children, written into his actual Last Will and Testament, was no less meaningful than the words penned by our sages of old.
I enjoy going back and reading those concluding paragraphs of my grandfather’s Will. His written sentiments reveal much about him. And yet, even that ethical will does not strike me as the most significant way in which my grandfather instructed those who would follow him. What mattered so much more was what he did. I cannot quote my grandfather’s sage advice from memory. At the same time, I retain a strong mental picture of the photograph taken on the day that he died, of his handing out pesos to poor children in Mexico. I still hear from the Holocaust survivor who credits his very successful career entirely to my grandfather, who gave him the loan to get his start, despite the better judgment of the officers at the bank.
The ancient Rabbis taught: ma’aseh avot siman levanim: “The deeds of the parents are an example to their children.” Note that they emphasized not “the words” of mothers and fathers, but “the deeds.” Our ancient Rabbis knew the fallacy of that oft-repeated admonition of parents to their children: “Do as I say, not as I do.” People who seek to model their behavior after ours will recall and repeat our actions, long after they have forgotten anything and everything we ever said.
Social scientists tell us that the children of alcoholics have an increased likelihood of being alcoholics. Children who grow up in violent homes are most likely to commit domestic violence themselves, or to be its victims. Children of teenage parents are at the highest risk of becoming parents too young themselves. Ma’aseh avot siman levanim: “The deeds of the parents are an example to their children.”
The Bible tells such stories. Like his father before him, Isaac plays favorites with his children, with devastating results for Jacob and Esau. Jacob then repeats the pattern of his grandfather and father, favoring Joseph, with an equally disastrous outcome.
Yes, the Torah tells the truth: “The sins of the parents are visited upon the children.” That’s not a very cheery thought, especially during this Hebrew month of Elul, when we prepare for the High Holy Days. At this time of year, we affirm that each of us can change our lives. We can be better people. We are not bound by negative actions in our past, and certainly not by the sins of those who went before us.
Perhaps, though, these words are not meant as a stranglehold. The child raised by slothful, drug-addicted parents who do not hold down jobs will require much more help from society than the rest of us, but, with a hand and a boost along the way, that child can rise to live a good, happy, productive life, free of the bonds of poverty and substance abuse. Having parents who are alcoholics, or who commit violence at home, is not an immutable sentence to repeat these behaviors. Yes, a great deal of work must be done, by family and by society, but the child can become a happy and healthy adult.
We see that unhealthy familial patterns can be broken, even in the Torah itself. When he sees his father Jacob, favoring one grandson over the other, Joseph attempts to rectify the matter. Perhaps more importantly, Joseph repeatedly assures his brothers of his love and forgiveness, after their egregious treatment of him, in their overreaction to Jacob’s favoritism.
What better reason, in fact, to change our wonted ways, than for the affect that our improved behavior will have on our children? Indeed, I have heard many, many young parents say: “I’m not going to mess up my children the way my parents did to me.” I interpret those words, not so much as a critique of the parents, but as a prayer. Even when we honor and revere our parents, and love them deeply, we who are each somebody’s child know our own parents’ faults better than anybody else. We haven’t just heard their words; we have lived with their actions. No matter how well they did, we all want to do better. When we embark on the task of parenthood, and when we are in the midst of it, the best we can do, sometimes, is to pray that we will not make too many mistakes in the process. None of us wants our children to endure lives of emotional pain, or to have to spend their inheritance, large or small, on psychotherapy.
What can we do? One thing we can’t do is be perfect. Every parent will lose his temper at some point. Every parent will, one day, say to her child exactly the words that her parents said to her, and that she promised she would never say to her own children. More than likely, one day, we shall hear our own children say that same thing to our grandchildren.
What we can do is improve the opportunities for our descendants to have happy and fulfilled lives. We do that, not so much through making more money, as many people believe, but by amassing a treasure-trove of righteous deeds for our children to inherit and emulate.
Let us care lovingly for the people closest to us, that our children may see our actions and repeat them in their own lives.
Let us speak to others with compassion, that kindness may be the first words to come to our children’s lips.
Let us reach out to people in need, even people we will never meet, that our children may learn from our example to care for those less fortunate than ourselves.
Let us study Torah as adults, affirming through our deeds that it’s never too late to learn. Then, our children will internalize the knowledge that Religious School has great value.
Let us worship as a family, that our children may see an example of religious commitment that they may follow in their own lives.
Let us give generously, in keeping with our means, that our children may practice philanthropy in our place, when their turn comes.
In the paragraph we call v’ahavta, the part of the Shema that we recite after we sit down, after the first two lines, we say: v’shinantam l’vanecha, “you shall teach them diligently to your children.” Literally, the commandment is to repeat the mitzvot twice, in teaching our children. Why twice? Yes, we should tell them the commandment, but that would only be once. So much more importantly, we practice the mitzvah, our actions being the critical repetition of the lesson.
And so, while it is true that the Torah warns that the sins of parents are visited upon the children, Scripture limits that vicarious guilt to the third or fourth generation. In the very next phrase, we are told that God lavishes lovingkindness on the descendants of the righteous, to the thousandth generation. Our good deeds will affect, and benefit, our descendants in the distant future, people whom we will not know and who may never even hear of us. We can make a profound and positive difference in their lives, into the distant future, l’dor vador, from generation to generation.