A Search for Meaning in the Expanse
It's been a many weeks since I wrote something longer than a verbose Facebook post. This is an eternity for a master story teller. While I am not enthralled with the keyboard on my by now not so new Dell laptop, it would be utterly futile to claim writer's cramp as my excuse. Propping up the computer to about twenty degrees to my [physical] desktop remedies the situation somewhat.
With all possible excuses, I do not want to let this day pass without augmenting my public body of writing. It has become my tradition to unmask my inner feelings on various milestone dates, one of which falls today, 21st Teveth. As I add another to my accumulated years, I reflect on what the last one dealt me, how it changed me and those in my immediate circle, and perhaps a little of what I see around the corner -- without of course claiming prophetic power.
I have wandered this earth for fifty-six and half years (I didn't start walking until I was eighteen months old). In that elapse, I have accumulated some education, and a modicum of understanding re nature and the ways of man. There is much that I do not know, and volumes I never will. "From all my teachers have I accrued wisdom" (and continue to). I owe a great debt to many for having reached thus far and accept that only I am to blame for my shortcomings.
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Death and rebirth characterise the cyclic nature of life. As one generation moves on, another is ready to take its place -- "[the 'minor' judge] Yiftach is as significant in his generation as [the major leader and prophet] Shmuel in his". We are blessed with an intergenerational overlap of, on average, three generations. This common time propagates society's survival.
Resultant of the first man's transgression, mankind lost the certainty of eternity. While Adam's personal punishment for defying divine desire did not result in his immediate removal from history's stage, nonetheless his act set in motion a condition in which we, each and every one of his descendants, on each waking day, know, perhaps suppressed to the back of his and her mind, that a last day, perhaps even today, will eventuate.
The rabbis in Avoth teach us, "don't say I will learn tomorrow, because you cannot be certain of that opportunity". Clergymen note that they never meet a man on his deathbed expressing the regret, "I wish I had spent more time at the office".
This year has been pivotal in my short life. When I was orphaned of my father 44 years ago, my mother succeeded in adapting to the role of two parents in the abruptly created vacuum. Now, with the passing of my dear mother two weeks after my last birthday, I am totally orphaned. In the absence of antecedents, I, by default, am thrust into the role of head of the family, the leader of the clan.
My mother did not have an easy final year. She started it undergoing serious chemo and radio therapies in addition to difficult surgery. Over this time she was able to endure her afflictions because of an intense desire for life, the struggle to continue this terrestrial existence. A survivor of the most terrible inhumanity ever imposed by men on other humans, on a single nation, she learnt the art of living against the odds.
Some studies have shown that these debilitating treatments may only prolong life for an average of three months. However my mother's last six months were filled with the joy of seeing continuity in her family: two of her grandchildren were married, she saw the birth of, and spent time with, her second great-granddaughter, and her first great-grandson, whom she unfortunately never met, was born just a few weeks before her passing. While she missed one of the weddings, in San Francisco, she did attend our daughter Michal's wedding just outside of Yerushalayim in October. She looked elegant as usual, but she was quickly being destroyed from within. The deadly disease had returned with a vengeance.
On 21st January I dropped everything in order to fly to Australia to attend my mother's funeral.
So it was with great pleasure that Jill and I again dropped everything a little over nine months later to fly to Australia for the brith of our first grandchild, my mother's fourth great-grandchild, Gilad Shimon.
Shimon is named for his maternal great-grandfather, he being the first male descendant. However when giving him this name, our kids did not realise that this too was the name of my murdered great-grandfather! An intertwining of the generations.
In congratulating us on Gilad's birth, many friends told us, "this is an amazing phenomenon, unlike anything you have ever experienced". I was curious.
Mothers are immediately close to their helpless offspring, a relationship that starts with the baby's first movements within. This connection is biologically essential.
For a father, bonding is not as instant. The prophet Yirmiyahu explains that for a father, a true relationship with his son [Ephraim] only develops when the two are able to verbally communicate. In my case, my grandson is in Adelaide and I am here, far away, in Efrat. Using Skype, one of the simple marvels of our age, we see and hear each other virtually daily on our computer screens.
Why do people forge so strong a link with their grandchildren, a bond based on a relationship which is very different from that which they maintain with either their parents or with their children? In pure, unemotional genetic terms, half of each of us is built from each parents' DNA. Similarly each of our children contain half of our DNA. Only our siblings have our genetic mould. But nearly all of us are closer to our parents, and certainly to our children, than to our brothers or sisters.
My grandson is genetically more remote, comprising but a quarter of my essence. My cousins mathematically have this same genetic commonality. While some cultures have another view, the Torah allows one to marry a cousin because their relatedness is sufficiently diluted.
So what is the source of this special grandparent-grandchild relationship? Some admit to spending more, and certainly different, quality time with their grandchildren than they did with their own children. True, our children are usually born when we are very occupied, building our careers, our and their futures. "From age twenty we chase [after a livelihood], in our thirties we are at our maximum strength . . . ." Interestingly, each of our children experience us as a different person. We all change over time, as does the way we interact with others and with our surroundings.
But by the time the next generation is developing, most people are settled and more relaxed with themselves, their chronological years resulting in a different maturity.
More than simple genetics is at play here. Each of us desires a portion of the immortality which God originally intended for mankind. It's a symptom of the human condition that does not exist amongst other mammals. No human wants to die; everyone craves at least some immortality. There is no elusive elixir of eternal life. But surely, we all ask, I was placed into this world for a greater good. I must be here to be even a small part in the bigger puzzle.
Some have a clearer picture of their purpose than others. As Jews we continue a tradition going back to Sinai and even further to Avraham haIvri, the first human to realise the true power base of the cosmos. While each of us carries but a small portion of father Abraham's DNA, we all carry a large share and responsibility for his philosophy and understanding of the universe, in other words of his vision of the supreme God. It is thus important for us, if not incumbent upon us, to continue the immortality of this tradition.
Twentieth century Jewish history has made it clearer to us than to any previous generation, that we can never be certain of personal continued existence. However it is imperative upon us to fight to guarantee the continuation of our tradition. In this, each and everyone of us is an unbreakable link in the chain connecting our grandparents to our grandchildren. This, I believe, is the importance of Jewish grandchildren. The Talmud emphasises this in informing us that a man has not completely fulfilled his biblical obligation of "filling the world" until he has grandchildren.
Our small obligation -- no, our enormous responsibility -- is to ensure that our minute personal universe endures, intertwined with the universes of every other Jew, so that we can all share in the soon to come final redemption.
Menachem Kuchar, 28th December, 2010
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