Eleh Toldot: These are the Generations

I like funerals.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that funerals represent loss. I feel deep empathy for the mourners. And death can also be tragic, especially when disease or tragedy cuts short a life precipitously. But even though the loss of a loved one leaves an emotional hole in one’s soul that may never fully heal, uplifting the accomplishments and values of the deceased never ceases to inspire me. I like funerals because they teach me a ton about life.

This was delivered on Sept. 15, 2021 as the Kol Nidre service at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (Bethesda, MD), where Rabbi Sid is the Founding Rabbi

Sometimes, when I know the deceased well, I wonder why, in all of our previous interactions, I never learned about the many things that got revealed by the eulogies. I accept some of the blame for that. But I would also fault the widely accepted social convention that too much probing in a social situation is not polite. And then there is the converse problem, even more common. Being in a conversation where your counterpart does not ask you a single question about you at all.

We are left in a situation where we know a lot of people. We even call them “friends”. But we don’t know much at all about what is really important to them or what makes them tick. Sounds a lot like Facebook. But the problem preceded the launch of Facebook and exists independent of that platform.

There is a version of this problem within family systems that is a bit more complex. How well do those of us who are parents, succeed in conveying to our children who we are and what matters most to us? And conversely, how often do children ask their parents about these life questions, when they are teenagers; when they are young adults; or when they themselves become parents?

I was recently part of a memorial service for a Jewish communal professional who worked on a national level and who made enormous contributions to adult Jewish education and to a vibrant Jewish community. Several prominent rabbis spoke at this memorial service and offered a teaching in memory of the deceased. The final speaker was the son of the deceased. An articulate young man in his 20’s, the son said that his father was a great Dad. He had wonderful memories of going to ball games with him, family vacations and just hanging around the house. Then the son added: A lot of what I just heard about my father from the previous speakers was new to me. I really didn’t know what my Dad did when he left the house on Monday morning.  

I felt sad thinking of how much the son could have learned from his father had he shown an interest in the way that his father impacted the wider world. The accomplishments, the failures, the lessons his Dad learned in the course of his professional work. And I also felt bad for the now deceased father. How he would have loved to share more of what made him want to get out of bed in the morning, with his son.

This phenomenon is not unique. I have officiated at many funerals when the surviving children have regrets about not knowing more about the lives of their recently deceased mother or father. Often, death is the impetus for an adult child to want to learn more about the parent who has just passed away.

Judaism puts a high priority on our linkages to past generations. One of the most common phrases in the Bible is “Eleh toldot…” “these are the generations of…” The phrase sets up a story and it ties that story to a generational chain that may go back several generations. Those long lists of genealogies in the Bible are not just “filler”. They make the point that so much of what we do is built into our DNA based on who has raised us and the generational legacy that has been passed down to us. Even the form of our names in Hebrew, link us to previous generations. Hebrew has no surnames; my name is Shalom Hanoch ben Avraham and Yehudit. This connects me to my parents, Allan and Judy, and, by extension, to the generations that came before them.

But modern society has weakened the link between children and parents considerably. The emphasis on identity formation privileges the autonomous self. More and more parents feel that they should not impose their values on their children.  As children mature, they want to become masters of their own destiny. Many young adults, either consciously or sub-consciously, find that both geographic and emotional distance from their parents is necessary for them to fully mature and create a life that is not tied to the wishes of their parents. For parents, knowing how and when to “let go” may be the single most challenging part of parenting.

I recently became more attuned to how difficult navigating the parent-child bond is from the child’s point of view. This summer a friend of mine, Ethan Davidson, published a memoir about his relationship with his father. Ethan is the son of William Davidson., the one-time owner of the Detroit Pistons and a nationally prominent Jewish philanthropist who died in 2009. I got to know Ethan because the Davidson Foundation is one of the major funders of my national work with rabbis and Jewish social entrepreneurs. Ethan heads up the foundation’s grants committee. Ethan left Detroit as a young man and travelled the world. His primary professional pursuit was as a singer-songwriter and he supported himself by playing gigs all over the United States in bars and restaurants. During that time, he was pretty much estranged from his family.

This is an excerpt from the book:

“Through all my changes, all the different identities I took on, I was struggling to individuate, to get as far away from (my father) as possible. Nothing grows in the shade of a big tree…I tried on a lot of different faces; I was a lot of different people; (my father) wasn’t always comfortable (with the identities I was trying on), but, if I was playing in Detroit, he always came. Eventually, I had to tell him not to come anymore….I don’t think (my father) ever was able to understand the degree to which I really needed to individuate myself from him.”

Reading this, my heart was breaking. For both Ethan and for his father, who I did not know. But here is the remarkable thing. Not only did Ethan come back to Detroit in his early 30’s, he came back to all of the things that his father most deeply cared about. He became a very serious student of Judaism. He built a small bungalow behind his house where he retreats every shabbat with his three sons, Asher, William and Levi now ages13, 12 and 8. He spends each shabbat studying Jewish themed subjects with them, going on walks and observing shabbat. Ethan has taken over the family foundation with great seriousness of purpose. And the book he just published is a form of reconciliation with his, now deceased, father.

Such are the mysteries of life and of families. “Eleh toldot”; “this is the true, unsanitized story of generational transition”. Let’s remember that in the first case of individuation in Jewish history, Abraham decides to smash all of the idols in his father’s idol-making shop. It was Abraham’s way of saying: “This cannot be my path”.

I suspect that the reason funerals often trigger the beginnings of a grown son or daughter wanting to know more about their mother or their father is that there is no longer a need to individuate, to protect the space between parent and child. The parent is now gone. And ironically, what was once a need to separate, so as to establish one’s own identity, evolves into a desire to understand and pass on the values that the previous generation represented.

A few years ago, I had the chance to meet Marshall Duke, a professor of psychology at Emory University. His life work has been about exploring how we pass down family legacies. His 20-question, “Do you know?” questionnaire provide prompts that offer a simple way to start the practice of family story telling. Professor Duke’s most important finding over 25 years of research is that the more an individual knows about her or his family, the more resilient he or she becomes. Giving our children deep roots, is a pre-requisite to giving them the wings to be who they are meant to be.  

Every family has its own approach to how parents continue to exert influence over their children, even as they become adults. And every parent struggles with how to give their adult children enough room to make their own decisions. But I do believe that we all stand to benefit by putting this issue on the table for more open discussion between the generations.

Here are three ideas I’d like to offer you on this Kol Nidre:

  1. Judaism has a tradition of Ethical Wills in which parents write down the values and aspirations that have been central to their lives and that they hope might be embraced by their children. There are several books on the subject that offer guidance on how to write an ethical will. If you do write an ethical will, you should not stash it in the safe deposit box with your other will. Find a way to share it with your grown children and set aside some time to talk about it.
  2. Create a special time when you can tell family stories to one another. Maybe it is on Chanukah, or at the Passover table or at Thanksgiving. For many years, when our family came back home after Kol Nidre services, we sat in our living room with our children and pulled out letters that grandparents wrote to us and to them. We never got through the letters without crying. I don’t know how much of those letters my kids remember. But I know that they remember the sacred time we set aside for the transmission of generational memories. And they got the message that family stories matter.
  3. Validate the path chosen by your children. Honor and respect their decisions, even if,–no–especially if, it would have not been the path that you would have chosen for them. Don’t just think it. Tell them. A little validation goes a long way. And it will make it safer and more likely that they will, in turn, reach back to you for generational wisdom that can be so important in their own life journey.

In Midrash Tanhuma, there is the following passage: “There are three names by which a person is called. One is the name that parents determine. One is the name that the public gives a person based on what they do in the world. And the third name, is the name one gives to him or her, self. The last one, is the most precious name.”

The midrash is teaching parents a lesson. Your work is never done but it changes over time. The “name” that you give to your child is precious but, in the end, your grown child writes his or her own name by the person they want to become.

Honor that third “name”. Respect the path that your adult children have chosen. And, for heaven’s sake, do everything in your power to keep the lines of communication open, even if it means eating some, undeserved, “humble pie”. Eleh toldot. This is how we pass a legacy on, m’dor l’dor, from one generation to the next.

Wishing you and your extended families, a shana tova umetukah.