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Rabbi Jack Riemer’s Sermon About Oceans Apart

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Before I begin my sermon this morning, I need to ask you two questions:

The first one is: how many of you have grandchildren who are geniouses?

I am glad to see so many hands go up.

The second question is: how many of you have grandchildren who live in a different state or a different country than you do?

I am sad to see so many hands go up, but that is the way the world is nowadays. Very few"hardly any of us---live in the same state or the same state of mind as our parents or our children.

Let me give you just one example of how mobile the world has become. When I started out as a rabbi, it was routine for a funeral to be held the next day after a death. Now that hardly ever happens. Now the funeral is held at least two days, and sometimes three or even four days after the death, because the children live at the other end of the country, and the grandchildren are on a safari in Africa, in a place where cell phones cannot reach them, and so it takes at least this many days to gather the family together for a funeral.

And the sad fact is that very few of us really know our grandchildren very well. We go to visit them once or twice a year, and they come to visit us perhaps once or twice a year. But we are not there for the great moments in their lives, and they are not here for the great moments in our lives. And most grandchildren think that their grandparents live at the airport because that is where they go to pick them up when they come for their annual or their semi-annual visit.

I remember being on a plane once, going to visit my grandchildren, and I happened to browse in the magazine that they have in the back of the seat of the passenger in front of you. And I noticed that they were selling an object that I think is a real sign of the times. It was a combination cassette recorder and lamp. The idea is that since you cannot be with your grandchildren very often when they go to sleep, you can record a bedtime story for them to listen to, and the lamp is so made that just as you finish the last words of the story, the lamp dims and then goes out.

I think that combination lamp and cassette is a sad sign of the times. It reflects what life is like in this world in which grandparents and grandchildren see each other so seldom.

The reason I talk about this today is because of a sad line that appears in today's Torah reading. Jacob is old, and so his son, Yosef, brings his children, Efraim and Menashe, to visit their grandfather and to receive a blessing from him. Jacob looks at these two boys and says:

"Mi eyle?:

Who are these two young men who stand before me?

I always thought that Jacob's inability to recognize his grandchildren was a sign of his senility, but there may be a simpler explanation. Perhaps he did not know who they were because they seldom saw each other. Jacob lived in Goshen. These two boys lived in the capital, many miles away. Jacob was an immigrant to Egypt, who spoke Egyptian with an accent. These two boys probably went to the best schools in the land, and probably spoke Egyptian flawlessly. He probably wore the clothing of a shepherd. They probably wore the garments that students in the best private academies of Egypt wore. They probably lived a busy life, just as their father, Yosef, did, and so they probably did not make the trip to Goshen to see the old man very often. And therefore, when Jacob looked at them, he said: Mi eyle? Who are these young men? He probably did not know who they were.
And for a grandfather not to be able to recognize his grandchildren when he sees them---isn't that sad?

What is true of Jacob and his grandchildren was probably true of Jacob and his parents. He left their home when he was a young man, and went off to live in the land that they had come from. When he came back twenty years later, I imagine that they were both dead. And I imagine that he was probably not able to get back for their funerals, for it was a long journey for a messenger to go to Aram and tell him of their passing, and it would have been a long journey for him to come back for the funeral. There were no e mails, no telephones, no telegrams, no way for him and them to keep in touch during all the years that they were separated from each other. And isn't that sad?.

Jacob was not the only grandfather who lived isolated from his grandchildren. When Abraham left his father, Terach, to go to the land of Canaan, did they keep in touch, and if so, how?

Perhaps they sent each other greetings by means of the camel drivers who went from one land to another. But did Terach ever meet Abraham's son, Isaac? Did he ever attend any of the social events in the life of his son? Was he there for the weaning party that Sarah gave when Isaac was a couple of years old? Did he even know about it?

I don't know, but, if he was, the Torah makes no mention of it, and I suspect that he wasn't. The distances were simply too great, and the means of communication were simply too inadequate for people who lived in different lands to keep in touch with each other in ancient times.

When Hillel came to the Land of Israel from Babylonia, did he ever keep in touch with the family that he left behind?

And when Maimonides moved from Cordova in Spain to Fustat in Egypt, and from there to the Land of Israel, did he keep in touch with those whom he left behind?

We don't know for sure, but I doubt it. The distances were simply too great, and the means of communication were simply too inadequate for people who lived in different lands to keep in touch with each other, even in medieval times.

I know how it was in my family. My parents came to America in the early nineteen-twenties. And from then on, until they perished in the Holocaust in the forties, I don't know how much contact there was between them and their parents. I am sure that my grandparents had no telephone in their home, and so it would have taken careful planning for a call to be arranged from one continent to another, and it would have been very expensive. And so all that I can remember is a sepia colored photograph of solemn looking people dressed in their best that came from Europe once in a while. And the letters that carried money for their support that went regularly from my parents to their parents, for the need to support their parents was one of the main reasons my parents came to this country. Did they know about my bar mitzvah? I have no idea. Did they get regular reports of our family's doings? I do not know. I know that, in those days, nobody went back from America to Europe for a vacation, and nobody came from Europe to America just for a visit. It was much too expensive a journey for that.

And so my grandparents could have said about me and my brothers if we had ever met: "Mi eyleh?" Who are these young men who look so different and dress so different and talk so different than we do? Jacob's words about his grandchildren could have been my grandparent's words about us.

And now? Now the world has opened up to our children and our grandchildren as never before. When we went to college, who knew about such a thing as spending a year abroad? Now it is common. When we graduated, who thought of spending a year working for Habitat for Humanity in Africa, or doing teaching in Asia, or spending a year in Russia or in South Korea or in Iraq. Now these kinds of things are routine.

And so, the question that we and our children and our grandchildren have to wrestle with is: how shall we stay connected, when we live across oceans, when we live tens of thousands of miles away from each other?

I think you know that I hardly ever review books from the pulpit. I prefer to teach Torah instead. But I want to make an exception to this rule today, if I may. I want to tell you about a wonderful new book that I think every grandparent in this room who has a grandchild living far away should buy. It is a book called "Oceans Apart" by Rochel U. Berman, published by Ktav Publishing Co. of New Jersey.

This is a book, not just for Jews, but for anyone and everyone who lives across oceans or across states from their grandchildren. It is jam packed with wisdom, that Mrs. Berman has garnered by interviewing all kinds of people: Indians, Vietnamese, people from the former Soviet Union, Mexicans, and other people whose grandchildren now live far away, and who want to maintain a relationship with their grandchildren across the many miles that separate them.

The first thing she teaches in this book is that technology may be our enemy but it can also be our friend. Technology is what has shrunken the globe and made it so easy for our grandchildren to ignore borders and to work in whatever part of the globe they wish. But technology can also help us stay together. One simple example is Skype, the new device that enables us to see each other through the computer"no matter how far apart we may be. When a child takes his or her first step, or utters his or her first word, grandparents can see it happen before their eyes, thanks to Skype. What a wonderful device this is, and what a blessing it is in enabling families to share special moments with each other across all the miles that separate them. Mrs. Berman has a very helpful chapter, written by her husband, George, that teaches us how to use Skype and Voice Over Internet Phone, and E-Mail, and Instant Messaging, and family websites, and family blogs, and Photo sharing, and other such modern devices in order to keep connected to each other from one end of the world to the other.

How I wish my parents had such devices in their time so that they could keep in touch with their parents, and so that I could get to know these people who appeared in those sepia colored photographs that I remember seeing in my child, those serious looking people dressed in their holiday best, who stared at the camera with such intensity, and whom I was told were my grandparents, whatever that meant.

Mrs. Berman has a chapter on how to plan a schedule when your grandchild comes for a visit. What should you show him that he does not get to see where he lives? Why you should show him your family photographs so that he can locate himself on the family's time line? Why you should teach your grandchild how to cook your favorite recipes or how to sew a dress or knit a sweater, so that some of your skills will become part of theirs.

She has a chapter with wise instructions on what to do when someone in the family is ill, on either side of the ocean, something that neither we nor they ever think much about when they are excited about the move they are making. And she has a chapter on how siblings, and not just parents, are affected when a person moves to the other end of the world and visits become sporadic and relationships become frayed.

This book has lots of practical information in it on how to celebrate traditions and how to cope with the cultural divide, and even some guidance on how to fly, and where to sit, and what to eat on board, and how to overcome jet lang.

Enough about this book from me. I urge you to get it and read it for yourself, if you have children and grandchildren who live far away. And I urge you to come up with your own ideas for how you can keep your family spiritually close, even if they are geographically far away.

Guestimates' are that over a hundred million people live separate from their parents or their grandchildren. Probably never before in history have we been so mobile, for good or for bad, as we are now. And therefore, I urge you to read this book and to give serious thought in your own mind on how to keep your children and their children close to you, despite the miles that separate you.

For, God forbid, we do not ever want to find ourselves in the situation that Father Jacob found himself in in the opening scenes of today's Torah reading. God forbid, God forbid, we do not want to ever look at our grandchildren---who may speak a different language, and who know different things and who live in different ways than we do----and say to ourselves: "Mi eyleh?" Who are these young people?

Instead, may we and they put our heads together and come up with innovative ways to bridge the gaps between us, and to teach each other and learn from each other and understand each other, so that we need never ask Jacob's painful question: mi eyleh.

Instead, may we and they be bound together by bonds of deep love, and by attachment to the same tradition and the same values.

And may God help us in this task.

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