The valuable lessons any grandparent can learn from Jewish tradition

Oct 12, 2015

In America this year, Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Grandparents’ Day both fell on the same day. The Australian Grandparents Day, 25 October, is not far behind.

Both holidays celebrate the passing on of wisdom from generation to generation. Whether or not you are Jewish, and whether or not your grandchildren are Jewish, we can all use this day to share our knowledge, experience and customs with our grandchildren.

Both holidays recognise the role the past plays in the future and the way individuals influence our lives. Grandparents’ Day honours the wisdom and emotional work of the senior generation. Similarly, Rosh Hashanah recognises the importance of honouring past traditions and family values. Both holidays encourage us to appreciate what the older generation has given us.

Unlike the secular New Year, which is a time of revelry, Rosh Hashanah is a time of reflection and prayer. It is a chance to contemplate what we have done well in the past year and what we need to improve for ourselves and others in the coming year. It is a time to come together as a family and as a community to forgive each other for any slights we may have committed inadvertently or purposefully. Equally important, it is a time to commit to improving future behaviours.

Rosh Hashanah goes back over 2,000 years; national Grandparents’ Day was officially established in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter signed a proclamation honouring the work of both biological and surrogate grandparents. His intent was to “strengthen the enduring values of family” and to recognise “grandparents whose values transcend passing fads and pressures and who possess the wisdom of distilled pain and joy”.

In 2015, much as in ancient times, grandparents have a role in teaching skills, reminding us that we are not in total control of our good or bad fortune. Yet we do have the responsibility to try to enhance our chances at a better life for ourselves and for others. The notion of collective responsibility for the raising of the human race is common across many centuries and many cultures. The expression “It takes a village to raise a child” captures the importance of those beyond the nuclear family.

In the past, children learned from their ancestors through religious traditions. Now, our longer and healthier lives give grandparents extended opportunities to enjoy and influence their families. For the growing number of interfaith families, both holidays provide a chance to share the common aspirations of the younger generation. All religions and moral systems acknowledge the importance of treating others with kindness, justice, and compassion. These two holidays mark a moment and officially provide a context for grandparents to share their values.

Interestingly, President Carter refers to not only biological grandparents, but “surrogate” grandparents; older people who play a role in inspiring and caring for the younger generation. This broad definition of family comports perfectly with the Rosh Hashanah tradition: coming together as a community to support each other as each individual attempts to grow and improve.

In the same vein, it is common to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with family and friends, whether they are related or not. That is, with people who have added meaning to our lives. Family and friends gather at the holiday meal to start the new year together and dip apples in honey to symbolise hopes for a sweet year and round challah bread to signify the continuity of life.

Both holidays recognise the importance of appreciating and thanking those in our lives now. Inherent in this concept is an understanding of the fragility of life. We must act now, because none of us knows whether we will be on earth to celebrate and treasure each other in the future.

When you celebrate Grandparents Day, no matter what your religion, take a moment to be grateful, to reflect on your own behaviour to honour the past and consider your hopes and plans for the future. But remember, these holidays rise above the merely ceremonial only if we heed their messages all year. It takes practice and perseverance!

What are the most important values in a grandparent? Do you agree we have something to learn from the Jewish New Year traditions?

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