From generation to generation


In my Photos program on my MacBook I have pictures of several generations of my family. On my father’s side, we hail from Romania; I have a portrait of my Romanian great-grandfather whose original name was Rivenzon, at some point alchemically transmuted into Robinson. My mother’s side (Schachere or Sachere) is from Bialystok, thence to Paris, France, the place with which most of those relatives identified. I recently connected with a college-age third cousin from that branch of the family, both of us eager to explore more of our history.

The Hebrew expression l’dor vador—in English, “from generation to generation”—has become a catchword in Jewish circles.

The Hebrew expression l’dor vador—in English, “from generation to generation”—has become a catchword in Jewish circles. It expresses the importance of passing on Jewishness and Jewish values to one’s children, from there to be conveyed to one’s grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and on and on.

This week’s parsha begins with the death and burial of Abraham’s wife Sarah and continues with the story of how Abraham sent his servant to find a marriage partner for his son Isaac. As one woman from one generation exits the story, another from a new generation—Rebekah—enters.

It is here that Abraham engages with the value of passing along the right values to his progeny. “Swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and God of the earth,” he tells his servant, “that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.” Long before God sought to protect Israel from the ideology and idolatry of the Canaanites, Abraham did not want his daughter-in-law to be a Canaanite. While this could have been for simple ethnic reasons, perhaps he also knew that passing on his faith in God could be compromised if Isaac “married out.” At any rate, Rebekah’s brother Laban appears to recognize Abraham’s God when he says to the servant, using the actual name of God, “Come in, O blessed of the LORD. Why do you stand outside? For I have prepared the house and a place for the camels” (Genesis 34:21). So this parsha contains a hint that Abraham saw the importance of l’dor vador,* and a hint that Rebekeh’s family recognized or even shared Abraham’s own faith.

As we know from elsewhere in Genesis, God promised Abraham that he would father a nation of descendants.

As we know from elsewhere in Genesis, God promised Abraham that he would father a nation of descendants. That promise was reiterated to Isaac and then to Isaac’s son Jacob. It is from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that the Jewish people came. And perhaps unknowingly, Rebekah’s family sends her away to Isaac with this blessing: “Our sister, may you become thousands of ten thousands, and may your offspring possess the gate of those who hate him!” Little did they know that they were affirming God’s promise to Abraham.

But always, the Bible places emphasis not on the number of descendants but on transmitting values down through the generations:

Exodus 13:14 (about the ceremony of redeeming the firstborn son): And when in time to come your son asks you, “What does this mean?” you shall say to him, “By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”

Deuteronomy 6:20-21 (about the laws of the Torah): When your son asks you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your son, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”

Deuteronomy 6:6-7 (from the Shema): “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

The New Testament too, carries on this understanding:

Ephesians 6:4 (in a letter to followers of Jesus): Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Do Jewish believers in Jesus transmit Jewish values generation to generation?

Bringing the New Testament into the discussion raises an issue for many Jewish people: Do Jewish believers in Jesus transmit Jewish values generation to generation? How does l’dor vador work out for Jewish people who choose to follow Jesus?

Perhaps the answer is found here: according to the traditional enumeration, there are 613 commandments in the Torah. Yet Hillel the Great, living in the century before Jesus, offered to teach the entire Torah to a man while he stood on one foot. His lesson? “What is hateful to you, do not do to another. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.” (Hillel’s “evil twin,” so to speak, the strict and harsh Shammai, reportedly beat the same man away with a stick.)

In the centuries following Jesus, one rabbi taught that Moses gave Israel 613 commandments, but David reduced them to ten. Then Isaiah did him one better and boiled them down to two. Finally, according to this same rabbi, the prophet Habakkuk distilled all 613 to one commandment: “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4).

In keeping with this long-standing Jewish way of thinking, Jesus also reduced the 613 to the two commandments to loving God and loving one’s neighbor.

Mark 12:28-31 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Here is a question: what if loving God as a Jew entails believing in Jesus as the Messiah? What if loving our neighbor as ourselves involves inviting them to faith in Jesus as well? Wouldn’t those be things worth transmitting through the generations?

When Sarah died, one generation ended. As Rebekah entered the picture and became Isaac’s wife, Abraham’s faith was enabled to be transmitted on. We Jews who follow Jesus want to say: If Jesus is the Messiah, then faith in him should be part of every Jew’s transmission of Jewishness and of Jewish values. L’dor vador. May it ever be so.

*Even though the phrase itself is not used in the Bible.

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From generation to generation