While I have only a very faint recollection of her, my great-great-grandmother, Bubu Fox, was alive until I was around six years old. What I do remember with clarity is a remarkable photograph of my older sister Julie with my great-great-grandmother, my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my mom. Five generations standing proudly together. And it’s this picture that comes to mind when I think about this week’s Torah portion, Devarim.
Consider the scene: the Israelites have wandered the desert for nearly forty years. A generation has died, and a new generation is prepared to enter the Promised Land. Moses, on the other hand, knows that he won’t cross into that future with his people.
Moses’s pain can be measured against Israel’s exhilaration. Moses fears not only for the Israelites’ survival but also for their spiritual fortitude; he knows they’ll face challenges of body and soul in this new land, and driven by the possibility that his dedication to God and the sacrifices he has endured might be for naught, Moses takes time to impart to his people the importance of their allegiance to their God.
There he stands, at the border between the present and the future. He has raised up his children and led them to freedom, but he can neither accompany them nor can he guide them on the last leg of their journey. And so, as instructed by God, Moses turns away from the land of Israel and toward his own death.
Can we not all feel his pain? Can we not sense anxiety and even hear the desperation in his voice as he calls out to his people? Do we not all want our children to take the things we provide them, the opportunities we make possible, and do we not fervently hope that they use these gifts to reach their own potential? We want our youth to carry forward our values and our beliefs and to make righteous decisions. We want them to give of themselves as we might give of ourselves. We want our descendants—individually and communally—to cross safely over their own River Jordan and enter a land of milk and honey. We want to protect them, to keep them safe, and to show them the majesty of the promised land, but we can only do so much.
What we can do is communicate, share, and demonstrate our values through our actions. There is a verse in II Kings (10:30) in which the Lord says to Jehu, “Because you have acted well and done what was pleasing to Me, having carried out all that I desired upon the House of Ahab, four generations of your descendants shall occupy the throne of Israel.” But it is not the praise or the reward that is of importance: it’s that fourth generation.
The impact of our values can, with the blessings of long life, be felt by our third generation—our great-grandchildren. But our great-great-grandchildren? We should all live so long.
Indeed, the real test of our legacy—our values, our beliefs, our ideology—comes in the fourth generation. For if we can feel its presence even as we ourselves are absent, then we can know that we have succeeded. That is our challenge: that our spirit will echo into the fourth generation. And into the fifth and the sixth. That it will resonate as the years pass and the branches of our family tree reach ever upward.
As it has always been, for generation upon generation, we now stand before our own River Jordan. That river is different than the one before which my great-great-grandmother stood, as it will be different from the one before which my daughters will stand. But our ancestors too stand with us, whispering of our history and our heritage and buoying us for the crossing.
And if we listen closely, if we can hear the wisdom of our greats and our great-greats, of our first generations, over the rushing of the water before us, we can cross with intention and strength and purpose into the land on the other side.