Being a parent can be extremely challenging. It places tremendous demands on our time, energy, and resources. We are tasked with taking care of our childrens’ every need- physical, emotional, religious, and beyond. The work is constant- and it feels like we have no time for ourselves. It can create incredible stress, impacting upon us physically and emotionally.
So why do we do it?
This question is highlighted when we consider the main storylines throughout Sefer Bereishit. A cursory reading of the general narratives finds a startling preoccupation with having children.
In this week’s parsha, Hashem commands Avraham to leave Charan and travel to Eretz Yisrael. During this initial encounter, G-d’s makes two fundamental promises to Avraham- one that he will give birth to a great nation, and two that he will inherit a great land. These two promises- many children and a great land- are repeated by G-d to Avraham several times, and then again to Yitzchak and Yaacov. Notably absent in these promises (with a few exceptions) are promises for personal greatness, or great personal wealth. Rather, the consistent focus of the promises is on children and land.
The Torah’s emphasis on the importance of having children is seen in other parts of Sefer Bereishit as well. The first commandment given by Hashem to man is “peru urevu”, “to be fruitful and multiply”, an explicit mitzvah to procreate and have children. Most of our Imahot- Sarah, Rivka, and Rachel, were barren- with much Torah text devoted to describing their heartfelt prayers to G-d for children. During a rare moment where G-d does promise Avraham material wealth, Avraham responds- “what will you give me? I am childless!”- material wealth was meaningless to him without children. And lastly, most of the other stories in Sefer Bereishit are connected to parents and children from the opposite direction- dealing with how the children of each generation compete for the title of firstborn.
So it is clear that from a Torah perspective, parenthood and having children is a primary goal. In truth, many of us innately share that desire for parenthood as well. And within our communities, the goal of getting married and establishing a family is considered a part of the natural progression in life.
Yet in the secular world, these values aren’t necessarily shared. More and more young adults nowadays are pushing off marriage and parenthood in favor of advancing their career, or out of a desire to “have a good time” without the demands of parenthood. Additionally, many choose not to have children at all, concerned that raising children will take away from their freedom and independence.
As we noted, Yahadut emphatically rejects this mindset. But why? Given all the challenges of parenthood, why do we sacrifice our own personal needs and desires in order to raise children?
As we face a world that questions these core values, it behooves us to better understand why parenthood is such an important value in Judaism, as well as instinctively in our minds and hearts. I’d like to highlight a few suggestions.
Firstly, humans have a natural drive to create. This urge, notes Rav Soloveitchik, finds it root at the moment in creation when G-d commands Adam “v’kivshuha”, “and you shall conquer [the world]”. While this natural urge is expressed differently in each person, the push is naturally embedded into our DNA. Creating a child is the most creative act in which any human being can partake – and therefore it naturally gives us a sense of accomplishment like no other act can. As G-d is the ultimate creator, this act of creation also is an expression of the G-dliness implanted within each one of us as well.
Secondly, parenthood enables us to give unconditionally. From the moment a child is born, its parents give of themselves completely to nurture this child. The types of giving and nurturing may shift over time, but the basic responsibility and natural tendency of a parent is the same- to give constantly and unconditionally. It is rare to find another relationship that includes such one-sided and unqualified giving. Rav Dessler, in Michtav M’eliyahu, explains that therefore the strongest love is that of a parent to a child, because true love is borne from complete and total giving to another. The feeling that comes from giving unconditionally to another is powerfully positive; a feeling that typically only parents are privileged to experience.
Finally, the result of these first two points is that in our children we see a continuation of ourselves. Aside from physical attributes and unconditional love, a parent bestows upon his children a way of life. Some commentaries suggest that the Tractate containing life lessons and morals is called “Pirkei Avot” because the lessons contained within are lessons most often given over from parent to child. Our children observe who we are and how we live our lives, and they are affected deeply by what we model for them. Much of who they become is a product of what we teach them, both consciously and unconsciously. In this way, even when we pass on, a piece of ourselves and our legacy lives on through them and through future generations. While our physical selves are ephemeral, our essence and legacy are thereby immortalized. From a communal perspective, this also ensures that the Torah and it traditions are passed down from generation to generation, guaranteeing the continued preservation of the Jewish Mesorah.
In today’s world, it’s accepted to question, and reject, all societal norms- including the natural drive towards parenthood. Given such a reality, we must re-affirm the reasoning behind values that we hold dear- particularly the beauty of parenthood. Doing so strengthens our resolve to make correct decisions- and also helps us get through the daily challenges of parenting- by reminding us why we made this decision in the first place.
Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom!