Protecting Our Legacies

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Medieval knight in the armor with the sword and shield. Castle on the background.

In tractate Taanis (5b), Rabbi Nachman makes a bold statement: Our forefather Yaakov never died.

This actually makes a lot of sense. After all, Genesis 25:8 tells us explicitly that Avraham died. Genesis 35:29 says overtly that Yitzchak died. For that matter, Genesis 5:5 says that Adam died, 9:29 tells us that Noach died and 50:26 informs us that Joseph died. When it comes to Yaakov, however, Genesis 49:33 does a little dance around it.

If you’re reading in English, you might see that Yaakov “expired” (meaning died) but that’s not exactly what the Hebrew word vayigva means. It’s more like “he diminished.” (Regarding Avraham and Yitzchak, the Torah says “vayigva vayamas” – the intention of which certainly isn’t “he died and he died!”)

So we have it on good authority and sound logic that Yaakov Avinu never actually died. Except Rabbi Yitzchak raises a valid objection: the Torah describes in great detail how Yaakov was embalmed and buried. Knowing Yaakov’s sons as well as we do, it seems unlikely that they would have buried their father had he not died.

Rabbi Nachman replies that he is actually expounding on a verse from the Book of Jeremiah that equates Yaakov with his descendants: just as they are alive, so is he. The takeaway most people get from this is that our children are our legacies. This makes a certain amount of sense but, personally, I’ve always had trouble internalizing this particular interpretation.

I never considered myself to be my father’s legacy or my grandfather’s legacy; I consider myself to be… myself. Similarly, I don’t see my children as my legacy. They are their own people with their own agency. For good or for bad, this has been the case since the beginning of time: Avraham chose a path different from that of his father, Terach, and his sons Yitzchak and Yishmael chose different paths. Yaakov and Eisav – twins raised in the same household – chose different paths. King Achaz was evil, his son Chizkiyahu was righteous, and his son Menashe was evil (though he did perform a late-in-life repentance). No matter who your parents are, you get to choose your own path. And no matter who you are, your kids get to choose their own path. Every parent does their best but there comes a time when we have to say “baruch shepatrani” and acknowledge that our kids are living their own lives, not just our legacies.

So, if our kids aren’t the extent of our legacies, what is? I think it’s subjective. Paul McCartney’s legacy is all the music he made. Pablo Picasso’s legacy is his art. Each of these creators is massively influential in his respective field and in that sense will live on for generations. Not everyone’s legacy is quite so inspirational. Mike Tyson will be better remembered for biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear than for knocking out Michael Spinks. OJ Simpson likewise made some poor choices that have diverted his legacy from the numerous records he set in rushing yards.

What’s my legacy? I’m a writer, so my legacy is the things I write. I made this realization maybe 15 years ago, while working for NCSY. Over the course of years, I authored about a dozen educational pamphlets under the banner “Torah on One Foot.” (They’re available online, if you care to see them.) One Saturday night, an NCSYer brought me a handful of these pamphlets to sign. I realized that this was something that some people will save. (Makes sense. There are “tossers” and “collectors.” I’m a collector and I’m surely not the only one!)

It was a sobering thought that 50 years from now, some NCSYer’s grandchild might find a stack of my work in a trunk in grandma’s attic. It’s a realization that makes you think, “I had better be prepared to stand behind what I write because it’s not just for today, it’s potentially forever.”

Mind you, this was a realization I had when I was just writing pamphlets. I later started writing actual books, which are designed to be saved. And then there’s the matter of the Internet. I’ve found my own work when doing research online and I’m sure others have as well. So, when I write something, I take it seriously because the things I write will ultimately outlast me.

This is true for every profession. Are you a teacher? The things you teach your students will be internalized. They will be believed and repeated, and will help to shape society. That’s your legacy. Are you a mortgage broker? You help to determine whether people get homes or get saddled with crippling debt. That’s your legacy. Are you a doctor? A lawyer? A mechanic? A grocer? No matter your profession, you have the ability to make an impact today that will potentially affect people’s lives generations from now. That’s quite a legacy.

It’s not just about our professions; our attitudes also help to forge our legacies. Do we greet everyone with a smile or with a scowl? That makes a huge difference in the world! Do we perform random acts of kindness when possible to make others’ lives easier? These small gestures are like pebbles tossed in a pond – they make waves that emanate ever outward. The ways in which we treat others – again, for good or for bad – will likewise outlive us. (Shakespeare wrote, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” – Julius Caesar, act III scene ii – but remember that Antony was speaking ironically.)

Yaakov was the father of the 12 Tribes and our entire nation carries his name. We are indeed his legacy and he does indeed live on through us. The rest of us, however, may have different roles in life. (We almost certainly do!) While how we raise our children is certainly an important component in what we leave behind, they will ultimately forge their own paths and leave their own legacies. We cannot control them forever, nor should we try to. We must therefore not overlook the things we actually can control, to the best of our abilities. Mundane though they may seem, these are the things through which we are most likely to leave our marks.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.