Giovanni Francisco Barbieri (“Guercino”) (1591-1666), Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Menasheh

Grandparents and Grandchildren: Do you know each other?

The scene is, indeed, touching: the aged patriarch, nearing the end of his arduous life journey, blesses his grandsons—the first such description preserved in the Bible of a grandparent doing so. The actual words of Jacob’s blessing, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh”, have entered the liturgy of our people as the authoritative words for blessing children. Orthodox vocal groups such as “D’vekus” have contributed new renditions of the text. Their rendition is folksy, in a twangy, American fashion, but also is “schmaltzy”, illustrating the way in which we wax nostalgic about the inter-generational intimacy of grandparents and their children’s children

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These days, I understand the Torah passage as hinting of a more troubled reality than the rosy-tinted traditional interpretation.

When Joseph hears that his father is gravely ill, he brings his sons with him. They enter the sickroom, and Jacob asks, “Who are these” (Gen. 48:8)

The question seems innocent enough, but something is amiss. Why would Jacob not know his Egyptian-born grandsons, after living in Egypt for 17 years? The Bible itself suggests that Jacob doesn’t recognize them because his eyesight is poor (verse 10). But that does not solve the problem. The verse seems out of place--- we ought to have been informed at the outset of the narrative that Jacob’s eyesight was poor, as the Bible does in telling the story the scene of Isaac’s blessing of Jacob (chapter 27). In fact, we have a melding of two biblical strands of tradition into the narrative, resulting in the displacement of the explanation of Jacob’s poor vision. But that leaves us with other perplexities. Was the detail of Jacob’s poor vision known only to one strand of our tradition? Moreover, why did Jacob not speak directly to the children, and identify them by the sound of their voices, as Isaac attempted to do with Jacob?

I am thus drawn to a different reading of the text. I believe that it is obliquely criticizing Joseph for not having made his own father part of the lives of his sons during the 17 years of Jacob’s sojourn in Egypt. Now, at the very end, he brings them to his father’s deathbed, but too late for a relationship to develop. The young men are strangers to their grandfather.

How could that have happened? We know that, prior to the family reunion, Joseph inquired repeatedly about his father’s welfare. During the remaining years of famine, after the descent of Jacob and sons to Egypt, Joseph provided for them. But giving charity is not tantamount to embracing the recipient as a soul-mate. Other than that detail, there are no traditions about the 17 years post-reunion, until the scene of Jacob on his sickbed. So, in the absence of controlling biblical evidence, we are in the realm of probability, not certainty. This is the scenario that I find probable:

Joseph was a high governmental official, and was married to the wife of a priest, therefore, an aristocrat (Gen. 47:22). Joseph’s own father and brothers, being cattlemen and shepherds, were outcasts in the intensive farmland society of Egypt (Gen. 46:33), and so they lived in Goshen, at a distance from the royal residence. Assimilated into the social circle of their fellow aristocrats, Joseph’s boys would have been exceptional indeed had they found a warm place in their hearts for their rough-hewn grandfather. It is likely that they imagined the odor of sheep clinging to that side of the family, like the pungency of pickled herring on the fingers of some of our own immigrant ancestors.

Despite the lack of familiarity, Jacob does bless his grandsons. But what does that prove? The effect of that blessing is more about Joseph than about the boys themselves. Jacob here undoes the damage done to him by Laban, decades earlier. Laban, we recall, had duped Jacob, switching Leah for Rachel on the wedding day. Being wedded to Leah first, but resenting her, Jacob set up a situation where God entered on the side of wronged sister by giving her children, while Rachel remained childless. Hence, Leah’s first-born, Reuben, was the first-born of record. He proved unworthy of that distinction, and now, in adopting Ephraim and Manasseh as his own, Jacob effectively transfers the double portion of the birthright to Joseph. The blessing conveys the tradition that the grandfather discerned superior greatness in the younger brother, not the older, as Jacob himself had outstripped Esau. But again, the Bible is frustratingly sparse in the details that would allow us to rest comfortably in the thought that Jacob had been an important part of the boys’ lives.

What we are left with, in this reading, is a cautionary tale for all the generations. Grandparents: do what you can to create a direct relationship with your grandchildren. See them often if geography permits. Use the boosters of telecommunications to compensate, at least partially, for distance. As the kids grow older, do what you can to relate to them on their own terms. Be the steadying family presence when they go through the crosswinds of adolescent rebellion. Parents: don’t let the busy-ness of life get in the way of fostering a deep and meaningful relationship between your children and your parents. If your parents represent a quaint cultural legacy, a generation clueless as to the memes and default assumptions of your own and your kids’ world, learn to celebrate that diversity. Children: the blessing of grandparents is a time-limited one. But it will give you life-long good memories. Make it happen now. Don’t wait.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Michael Panitz