Every once in a while, a special person – someone I love, admire, and/or respect – will offer up an idea or a perspective that will alter the way I see or think about life. Sometimes that person is a colleague, a friend, a family member, or a teacher. Sometimes the concept discussed is basic, right in front of me, yet nonetheless produces a major “Aha!” moment. And true to form, once uncovered, this revelation cannot be forgotten or ignored.
A couple of weeks ago, during Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill – beloved friend and co-rabbi at The Orangetown Jewish Center – offered a sermon about families. Her remarks made a connection between three Jewish values that I had never linked together. More importantly, her points of view enabled me to broaden my own thoughts and understanding of what it means to be a family.
With her permission and blessing, I offer an excerpt of Paula’s sermon here. I do so with the hope that on this Simchat Torah – as we start reading the Torah again from the beginning – that you start a new chapter with new insights too.
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Sarah waits all her life, is remembered by God, and gives birth miraculously at the age of ninety-nine to a child who fills her life with laughter. In the Book of Samuel, Hannah struggles with infertility until she finishes weeping, prays, and at last gives birth. In the texts of Rosh Hashanah, God micro-manages fertility to teach us about how fragile, and at times futile, our quest for the next generation can be.
The striving and the struggles, of course, continue today. Some women are like Hagar and Penina [rivals of Sarah and Hannah, respectively], becoming pregnant with ease. Many couples wait and are eventually remembered. Others take matters into their own hands and demand, perhaps to God or perhaps to fertility specialists, until they have children.
But what of Jewish couples who cannot have children? What of Jewish people who do not find life partners? As the worlds of medicine and miracles continue to merge, many are lucky and blessed to create families. As the blessings increase for so many, however, the more painful it becomes for those who cannot access these miracles for themselves.
Bearing and raising children is a key Jewish value. It all begins with Sarah and Abraham and the generations in the Book of Genesis – Beresheet. The emphasis continues with centuries of law and lore about the centrality of the family. And, since Judaism is anchored in daily practice at home, it is naturally family-based.
Three values can be identified that inform this emphasis on family.
- P’ru U’rvu. The first commandment given to humanity is to be fruitful and multiply. Where does that leave you if you are not able to have a child?
- V’shinantam l’vanecha. The purpose of Jewish ritual for every holiday is to teach children values like pride, respect, honor, obligation, and joy. How can you fulfill the obligation to teach your children if you are not able to have them?
- L’dor v’dor. Protecting the continuity of the Jewish people is a driving force in our practices. We don’t live in the world only for our own sakes, but inherit what was given to us by our parents. We are obliged to pass that on to the generation to come. When we have children and teach them how to live in the world, part of us lives on in them. But what if we don’t have children?
We are blessed today because there are many ways to make a family. Children are adopted, are fostered, and are born with the assistance of surrogates. Today, we can celebrate the diversity of families if we open our minds and hearts to a new definition of family: A family is a group of people who provide havens of love, safety, and dynamic growth. A Jewish family is a “place” where individuals can grow into their best possible selves within the context of community. A Jewish home is a place where the mezuzah on the door says, “This is a place where Jewish values are passed on.”
Our task as a Jewish community is to support a diversity of families. If families are sanctified, holy units, then we can accept, include, and celebrate them.
In my synagogue community – and I am sure, in yours too – we have every size and shape of family: grandparents raising grandchildren; single adults attached to nieces and nephews; parents of adopted children; Jewish fathers married to non-Jewish mothers with Jewish children (and vice-versa); blended families; two moms raising kids; single moms by choice; single dads; and even families with a mom, a dad and 2.5 kids.
However a family is created, it fulfills its mission if it allows the core family values of Judaism to flourish: Pru Urvu, V’shinantam l’vanekha, L’dor v’dor. If we celebrate families as sources of love and Jewish value, our communities will become richer and more holy.