A friend of mine many years ago confided in me that he did not want to have children. He saw them as an inconvenience and simply preferred to own pets, which would never make demands on him, argue with him, or keep him up at night. He would also not be required to pay exorbitant tuitions for Jewish day school education. When I countered that the Bible commands us to try to have children and that one of the first questions we are asked in the heavenly court is whether we truly attempted to have children, he dismissed my arguments. When I shared the practical reality that children take care of us emotionally and physically when we are older, and that they are a living extension of the legacy we create during our lifetime, he again rejected my thinking. To him, present creature comforts trumped everything.
A Simple Twist of Fate, based on George Eliot’s Victorian novel, Silas Marner, reminds us that to parent a child is a blessing that can make our own lives more meaningful. When we learn to care for child, we are leaving our own egocentric desires at the door and becoming better human beings by giving to another who cannot take care of himself. This is what happens to Michael McCann, a high school music teacher, when he adopts a small child who serendipitously finds her way into Michael’s home on a stormy winter night after her mother dies in the snow.
Until that transformational moment, Michael has led a reclusive life as a carpenter crafting elegant furniture and amassing a collection of gold coins, which he counts every evening and jealously guards. On one fateful night, his coins are stolen, and Michael is shaken to the core. Depressed and irritable, his mood changes when he discovers Mathilda, the foundling, and rears her as her father. Life becomes meaningful for him as he learns to parent her. Love deepens as he guides her and watches her mature into an intelligent, precocious, and happy youngster.
Complications ensue when Mathilda’s real father attempts to adopt her many years later, citing Michael’s inability to pay for her education at the finest schools and his eccentric life style. Michael, after all, is only a carpenter who earns very little, and his social life is limited. Following in broad brush strokes the outline of Silas Marner, the film depicts the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that beset Michael as he tries to retain custody of Mathilda. For him, parenting is a calling and he does not want to surrender that privilege.
Jewish tradition places great value on having children and on raising them to be images of the Divine. Being fruitful and multiplying is the first commandment in the Bible. God wants the world to be populated, and having children accomplishes this Divine goal. Moreover, Judaism emphasizes the chain of tradition and passing down values to the next generation. This is expressed in the Passover Seder, where children ask questions of parents, who supply answers to inquiring minds. Furthermore, every Friday night in many Jewish homes parents bless their children, poetically comparing them to the great patriarchs and matriarchs of the past, who carried the message of Jewish living to subsequent generations of Jews. Having children allows one to be a messenger of God in this cosmic plan.
As a parent, I have told my children that my most important title is not rabbi or doctor; rather it is Abba/Father. What my own parents left me was a host of positive memories, which played a role in my own self-actualization as an adult. Their values are embedded in me, and that is their legacy, which I try to pass on to my own children.
A Simple Twist of Fate suggests that the best thing a parent can leave a child is a legacy of love and strong family values. These will endure beyond any material gift.