"Joseph lived to see children of the third generation of Ephraim; the children of Machir, son of Menasseh were likewise born upon Joseph's knees...Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years...."(Genesis 50:23, 26)
We do not really know what to do with the Torah's claims that many of the people in Genesis lived extraordinarily long lives. Once in a while in our times we hear of people living to 110, as Joseph is said to do in our Torah reading this week, but we cannot be faulted if we are skeptical about the numbers the Torah claims our Patriarchs and Matriarchs lived, let alone the lifetimes of hundreds of years for those who preceded them in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. These numbers may simply be the Torah's way of indicating that they were mythical figures, larger than life, as it were.
Indeed, the Psalmist indicates that "the span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years" (Psalms 90:10), and it is considered a great blessing to see your grandchildren - "May the Lord bless you from Zion; may you share the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life and live to see your children's children. May all be well with Israel!" (Psalms 128:5-6). This is closer to what was probably the reality in antiquity. Many died in childbirth - women and children - and those who survived birth often succumbed to infections and other diseases, but if you made it to age twenty and did not have to go to war, the chances were good that you would make it to sixty, seventy, or even eighty. This was true well into modern times, for life expectancy in the United States in 1900 was around 45 years of age, but that figure reflected many deaths in childbirth and childhood. Thus some of us who are now grandparents remember our own grandparents. (In my case, all four were alive when I was born, but three of the four died before I was Bar Mitzvah.) Now that life expectancy in the United States is about 78, more and more of us will see our grandchildren, and some of us will be lucky enough to see our great-grandchildren.
What is the role of grandparents? The Talmud is very specific about that. Not only do parents have the duty to teach Torah (and the skills to earn a living) to their children; grandparents do too (B. Kiddushin 30a), based on Deuteronomy 4:9: "Make them known to your children and to your children's children!" In our day, that might include helping parents pay tuition for Jewish schools, camps, and youth groups for their grandchildren. Grandparents can feel good about doing that, but not too good because it is not an especially generous act on their part; it is their Jewish legal duty!
Grandparents, though, can and should have a much more direct and personal influence on their grandchildren. I have been a member of admissions committees for rabbinical school for over forty years, and time and time again applicants mention their grandparents as a major Jewish influence on their lives. Not every Jew should become a rabbi, of course, but this illustrates the immense affect that grandparents can have on the Jewish character of their grandchildren's lives. Following the lead of my friend, Dr. Alvin Mars, I now Skype with my nine-year-old grandson who lives across the country in New Jersey each week. We study D'varim (Deuteronomy) together for fifteen or twenty minutes, and then we talk about all kinds of other things. This not only deepens our personal relationships; it also communicates my own commitment to Judaism, and it helps him think about his own Jewish life. Aside from that, it is a sheer delight!
This becomes even more important when your children have married people of other faiths. How do you model your own Jewish commitments to your grandchildren so that they know about them and seek to figure out their own Jewish identity as they grow? Rabbi Charles Simon, Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, and a number of people working with him have produced wonderful materials to help grandparents do that, including Let's Talk About It - A Book of Support and Guidance (on talking with your members of your family who are intermarried) and Intermarriage Concepts and Strategies. Check out the FJMC website to order those materials here.
May we all grow to be grandparents and, if we are lucky enough to be as Joseph was, even great-grandparents, and may we take that role seriously by fulfilling our duties as Jewish educators for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.