So what do you do?” That’s the question we most frequently ask upon meeting someone new.
A version projected onto medieval times has a builder reply, “See that cathedral? I build the story 60 feet up; my father built the one below it, and his father built the one below that. My son will build it higher still, as will his son after him.”
We Jews, however, build no such multi-generational cathedrals; our equivalent is a generational chain of blessing, an idea with which the Book of Genesis ends.
The scene is Jacob on his deathbed, blessing his children. “This,” says the Torah, “is what their father said.” But why call Jacob “their father” rather than “Jacob,” his name? Because, says Genesis Rabbah (100:12), these future progenitors of Israel will receive blessing from many generations of parents, not just from Jacob. “Where one generation ends, the next one begins.”
Blessing began with Abraham and Sarah, then continued with Isaac and Rebecca, and kept going all the way to Moses. The haftorah extends the chain still further, by picturing King David dying and adjuring Solomon to “keep God’s charge” just as he, David, had done.
Generational continuity is a way to solve a perennially difficult passage in the history of biblical interpretation: the medieval rabbi and commentator Ramban’s insistence that beyond being the story of what has already happened, Genesis is a prophetic premonition of what was yet to be. The plain sense of Ramban’s claim has prompted endless futile efforts to find a code by which chance combinations of biblical letters might somehow reveal the future.
As a confirmed medieval mystic, Ramban may indeed have believed that, but equally, he may have meant something more intellectually acceptable. Genesis is not just stories about particular individuals, he realized; it provides patterns that recur through time: sibling rivalry, for example; and (our case here) the parental insistence on blessing. Every parental generation is heir to the cumulative blessing of its past; and then passes that on enhanced by its own contribution to posterity. Each successive generation thus inherits a compound set of blessings: what its immediate parents were able to fashion, and what parental generations over the centuries managed to pass along earlier.
We have here an early Jewish affirmation of a doctrine that captured Western thought only with the Enlightenment: the idea of progress. Most ancient peoples saw history as an endless and repetitive cycle. Not so Israel, said Mircea Eliade, the professor who founded “History of Religion” as a discipline. Israel adopted a linear view of history, a developmental line by which every generation can build on the accomplishments of those who came before. We are not just doomed to repeat what others have done. We can all accomplish together what no single generation can bring about alone.
To be sure, some parental generations bequeath the opposite: not blessings but curses. Hence our prayer on holidays, “livrachah v’lo liklalah”: “May we know blessing, not curse.” Every generation must struggle with the legacy it leaves behind. Are we adding to the blessing or detracting from it? Yet Jews insist that over time, blessing will prove victorious. History is cumulative and the good will win the day. “On that day, God shall be One and God’s name shall be One” (Zechariah 14:9 and the end of the Aleinu prayer).
Our insistence on progress derives from our reading of Genesis. Each generation inherits the legacy of blessings left by those who came before, and then strives to add its own set of blessings onto that. There’s a reason we chose Hatikvah (“The Hope”) as Israel’s national anthem. We are a people of hope and of promise.
“So what do you do?” The next time people ask you that, tell them, “See this thing called history? I inherit the blessings of my predecessors and I add my blessings to theirs; my children and my children’s children will do likewise. I am a Jew. I believe in progress.”
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.