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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Choosing Your Grandfather

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

"He is a wise child who chooses a good grandfather.”

I recently spoke at a conference of baalei teshuvah. Someone came over and introduced himself to me as a great grandson of the Pnei Yehoshua.

While in college he learned that he had such an illustrious grandfather. He spent years researching Rav Yehoshua Falk, his community and his writings. (He was indeed a remarkable human being.) He eventually made a decision to try to be like his great grandfather. In wanting to share some family trivia I pointed out to him that Karl Marx was also a grandson of the Pnei Yehoshua. He was astonished that I knew that little known fact. He looked at me and said, “I chose the Pnei Yehoshua!”

Yaakov and Esav became two great nations. Not just different, but opposites. Not only did their descendants quarrel, they went to war. On and off in history they got along, after all they were brothers - but during most times it was a bitter fight.

How could two brothers be so different? The answer is to be found in the grandfathers, Avrohom and Besuel. Avraham was the man who discovered God and loved humanity. Besuel was a crook, an infamous fraud who put money above everything. All of us can choose a grandfather. Yaakov chose Grandfather Avrohom as his model in life and became the servant of God and man. Esav chose Besuel as his guide and grew up to be an unscrupulous, selfish, violent man.

Esav walked into the house and was overcome by the sight and aroma of a bowl of beans that his brother was cooking. Why was Yaakov cooking beans? Because his grandfather died, his father was sitting shiva so Yaakov was preparing a “seudas aveilus” for their father Yitzchak. It is traditional for mourners to come home from the cemetery and eat beans. Esav said, give me the beans! Forget Avrohom - his ways are pass? - why bother with his heritage? Besuel was a man of the world; Grandfather Besuel - not Grandfather Avrohom - is who I will mourn for. He is my ancestor, my mentor and my role model.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “He is a wise child who chooses a good grandfather.” ... or grandmother. Each of us has two parents, four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents. If we go back to the days of Avrohom the first Jew, each one of us has countless pedigrees, many very good, some bad, some indifferent. They are all possibilities for our lives. We can choose our ancestry and must do so with care; we must decide which tradition and heritage from our past should claim our loyalty and our allegiance. It is impossible to be the spiritual child of everyone who preceded us. But we can choose the forbears we would like to emulate, the grandfathers or grandmothers that will be our guides and the basis of our own personalities.

Someone recently described the cemetery in Prague, where great Jews are buried, including the Maharal of Prague. The Jewish community had only a small plot of land for the cemetery. As each successive generation was buried, the community added a layer of earth. The cemetery became higher and higher until it became a series of small hills. Each hill represented a family. Under each grave there were five, six, seven, even ten gravestones, each one behind the other, almost touching. When you look at the hill you see generations, one touching the next, each physically leaning on the generation that preceded it. Symbolically, each generation was dependent on the spiritual gifts of those who came before.

Yaakov chose Avraham; Esav chose Besuel. Yaakov begot the holy tribes of Israel; Esav begot Amalek.

Moshe Rabeinu at the end of his life implored us to do the same. “Meditate on the generations that preceded you.” Check out your ancestry. Learn about your heritage, and pick one or more of your grandparents to emulate. The right choice will make all the difference in the world.

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