September 19, 2019 |

Recognizing your Children

Recently our congregation was given a tremendous gift. The family of Rabbi Gedaliah Silverstone gave us a Torah scroll that had many years ago been acquired by the Silverstone family in memory of Rabbi Gedaliah. The family had read from the Torah on the High Holidays and memorable family occasions and they decided that they wanted our congregation to be able to use the Torah, protect it, and watch over it.

This gift has special meaning for us as Rabbi Gedaliah Silverstone was rabbi of our congregation back in 1906. When we read from this Torah this morning, I felt as thought the neshomah of Rabbi Gedaliah Silverstone was here with us as well.

Rabbi Gedaliah Silverstone came with his wife Rebecca to Washington D.C, in 1901 after first serving as a rabbi in Belfast, Ireland. Together, he and Rebecca had ten children and many more grandchildren.

The rabbi was a great scholar in the strictly Orthodox Lithuanian rabbinic tradition. He is known to have written at least 38 books, and probably he wrote even more than that. He was well known for his brilliance and his devotion to Orthodoxy.

I wonder what it must have been like for him when he got off the train in Washington for the first time. Here was this Lithuanian rabbinic scholar in a place that was from the perspective of yiddeshkeit a desert.

There were no yeshivas back then in Washington. There weren’t any kosher restaurants. And he was the Orthodox rabbi.

I have seen with my own eyes how Rabbi Silverstone signed his documents: Rabbi Gedaliah Sivlerstone, chief rabbi of the Washington, D.C.

He might have been Chief Rabbi, but he was also in many ways a lone wolf keeping the ancient traditions in a modern land. His granddaughter, Judith White, tells the following story in her book, Silverstone Stories and Other Mishagos.

One time he was invited to President Taft’s wedding anniversary celebration where he was seated with the Archbishop of Washington, D.C. Mrs. Taft came over to the table and noticed that Rabbi Gedaliah was not eating the pork. So she told him: “You can eat, it is all kosher.” Then the Archbishop asked the Rabbi why he was so stubborn and old-fashioned about not eating pork. The rabbi displayed his keen Talmudic mind and wit and quickly responded, “I promise you that at your wedding I will eat pork.”

He was a great scholar of the Talmud living in a strange country with new customs and traditions. In fact he was the 12th straight generation of Silverstone rabbis—his son, Rabbi Dr. Harry Silverstone was the 13th generation. With his black hat, and full grey beard and love of Torah study, he must have felt that this country America which was so open and welcoming to his family and friends wasn’t really the place for him. This is probably why, in 1937 he moved to Palestine where he died in 1944. Although he kept in close contact with his ten children while he lived in Palestine, he never saw them again.

Ever since the Silverstone family gave us their Torah scroll, I have thought about Rabbi Gedaliah a lot. What must have been going through his mind as he watched his children and grandchildren growing up in America?

If you look at the Silverstone family today, you will see a wonderful and beautiful extended family. Nice people. Good people; generous people. But in many ways they are the typical story of the American Jewish family—including my own. The original patriarch was a pious grandfather who immigrated. Now a few generations later, for the most part there is no more orthodoxy. Some of the family members remain connected Jewishly to various degrees, others less so. And of course, as in every American Jewish family, some of the descendants of this very great rabbi and are now no longer even Jewish.

If we took Rabbi Gedaliah and via a time machine placed him right in front of his descendants—what do you think he might say?

Lucky for us, we DO have such a time machine. It is called the Torah and it is relevant to us in every generation. This morning’s Torah portion records the following interaction between Joseph and his father, Jacob.

Joseph gets word that his father is about to die, so he rushes to see his father and he brings with him his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe.

Jacob says, “Your two sons who were born to you before I got here, shall be like my sons to me. Ephraim and Menashe will be to me like Reuven and Shimon.”

But then the text says something very strange and difficult. Vayar Yisrael et benei Yosef vayomer mi eleh? And Israel saw the children of Joseph and he asked, ‘Who are these?’”

Mi eleh? Who are these?

What kind of question is that? Jacob just told us that Ephraim and Menashe are like his own children and now he looks at them and asks “who are these”?

And Joseph’s response is also very strange.

Joseph says, “Banai hem asher natan li elohim bazeh, these are my children that God gave me here.” As if his father didn’t know that Ephraim and Menashe are his children!

As Ramban wonders, “lo hayah yosef tzarikh lehodieah et zeh leyaakov, Joseph doesn’t need to tell his father that these are his children that God gave him in Egypt!” What is going on in this strange passage?

The answer is that when Jacob looked at Ephraim and Menashe he said, “mi eleh” in a different sense of the words. He was asking: Who are these children standing before me? What are their values? Are they really worthy of being my children?

Probably he looked at them and they looked like Egyptian children. And when he looked at them he was scared and concerned that they would not follow in his spiritual path. He said “mi eleh” because he did not know what to make of them.

In many ways the older generation of American Jewish immigrants looked at their younger offspring in America and said “mi eleh.”

And it cuts both ways. Many people bring a picture into my office of an ancestor of theirs from Europe; a pious, bearded Jew with traditional garb. And now, here they are, themselves clean shaven and dressed in modern clothing. And the descendants ask about their ancestors of just two or three generations ago: “Mi eleh?”

This is the checkered story of American Jewry. People look at the pictures of their grandparents or their grandchildren; the facial features are the same, but that is it.

According to Rashi, Yaakov was very uncomfortable with his own grandchildren. The Torah says that his children carried his coffin to the land of Canaan. And Rashi comments that Yaakov only lets his children carry him and not his grandchildren, “ve lo ish mitzri ve lo echad mi-beneichem she-heim mi-bnot kenaan, and not an Egyptian man or any of your children since they are from the daughters of Canaan.”

Yaakov’s grandchildren are partially Egyptians and Canaanites and so he has great concerns about them. He asks himself: Mi eleh? Are these my children?

This is why Joseph responds to his father’s question by saying, “Haelokim natan li et zeh, this is what Hashem gave me.” These children are from God. This is our fate in this world and we must recognize that. My father, understand, that these too are your children.

And when Jacob hears this he recites a blessing which many of sing to our children before we tuck them in at night. Yaakov says (48:16): Hamalakh hagoel oti mikol rah hu yevareh et hanaarim veyikreh bahem shemi, May the same God who sent an angel to redeem me, May He bless the lads and let them carry my name and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and let them increase in the land like fish.

Ramban explains that this verse means: sheyaamod zaram veshemam, veyihyeh shem Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov nizkar bahem leolam, may their seed and name endure forever, and may the name of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob be remembered through them forever!

This prayer is declaring that even though we know our children will not necessarily follow our spiritual blueprint we are asking for the angel of Hashem to guide them so that the name of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is always remembered through them.

And when we recite this prayer with our children every night this is what we are requesting from Hashem: that the angel watches them and guides them on their spiritual path.

But of course, this is not only true in the area of spirituality.

Sometimes parents look at their children and they say “mi eleh,” who are these kids? This is not the path I wanted. This is not the direction I wanted my child to go in. My child is turning out differently than what I had in mind.

And so we turn to Hashem and we pray that the angel guides them and directs them along their path.

In this week’s portion we are taught that we should always bless our male children to be like Ephraim and Menashe. Why Ephraim and Menashe, and not Mosheh and Aharon, or Avraham and Yitzchak? Aren’t Ephraim and Menashe minor figures in the greater biblical narrative?

You know why ,we always bless our children to be like Ephraim and Menashe? Because Ephraim and Menashe did not turn out exactly like Jacob wanted them to, but nevertheless he blessed them and he loved them unconditionally. Probably, he felt that by loving them unconditionally he would have a chance to influence them and guide them.

I want to close with another teaching of Rabbi Gedaliah Silverstone. This is a teaching that I have taken to heart and started practicing in my own rabbinate. Whenever Rabbi Gedaliah would visit a home that might not have been kosher, he would always partake of a fruit, an orange or a banana. He felt that it would have been impolite to to completely refuse the host’s gesture of hospitality.

In short, he found a way to practice his Orthodoxy and connect to the Jews of the city.

A few weeks ago, we rededicated the Silverstone Torah on a Saturday night in our shul. We thought that very few people from the Silverstone family would come. After all, it was a Saturday night.

Boy, were we wrong.

That Saturday night the Silverstone family arrived in droves. Some drove from Philadelphia, while others flew in from Texas. All wanted to be there for the rededication of Rabbi Gedaliah’s Torah. What a merit to his neshomah that all of these family members so many years later came to partake of the mitzvah of honoring and writing a Torah scroll.

Perhaps soon, in Rabbi Gedaliah’s merit, we will have yet another generation of Silverstone rabbis.

In the meantime, every time we read from that Torah in our shul, we are fulfilling the blessing of Jacob, “Yesmichah Elokim ke-efraim ve-menashe, May God make you like Efraim and Menashe.”

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Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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