Vayera- For the Children
There is a story told of a man who constantly professed his love for children.
One day, he had a new side walk placed in front of his house, but to his dismay, he found the neighbor's children running through the wet cement. He was screaming mad and ran after the children like a savage. The neighbor stopped him--But I thought you always loved children?
He replied," I love children in the abstract, but not in the concrete."
I bring up children, because, today's Torah reading is about the longing for a child by Sarah and then the conflict between two mothers, Sarah and Hagar, for the sake of their children, followed by Abraham being willing to offer up his son on the altar- some irony there.
Do we love children, we proclaim it all the time? We love children in the abstract, where it doesn't cost us anything. But can we stand children when they get in the way of our plans and lives?
Our Jewish emphasis on the children, the children as our future, as our guarantee, is based on the premise that each and every child is born in purity, is born innocent of sin, innocent of evil.
Our tradition taught that the child is born pure, and if nurtured carefully, if guided and educated with love and with direction, that childlike purity could remain with a human being throughout life. Our sage felt that would be true, if the child were born healthy or ill, bright or mentally disabled--if we could but create the right environment, of Jewish learning, of a life of Judaism, every child could reach his or her special destiny , special goal in life.
I want to share a tale .A mother bird sees a cat approaching her nest. She is able to save only one chick out of three. Which one can it be? The first chirps, Save me, and I will care for you as you have cared for me. The second chirps the same, but the third chick chirps, " Save me, and I will care for my children as you have cared for me." The mother bird saves this chick.
This is the Jewish approach, of " Far die kinder", and while it may be the butt of many comedians jokes, and while psychologists have warned of the guilt that Jewish mothers place on their children, it is an approach that has worked for four thousand years.
Don't go to the great Greek writers and philosophers who shaped our modern thought. Euripides and Democritus declared children a curse--since you can't be sure your children will grow up virtuous, it's better not to have any.
As for weak children, the philosopher Plato approved of the common practice of abandoning babies to the wolves as a solution to poverty and as a method of birth control.
The Roman historian, Tacitus, considered us to be "strange" because we considered it a crime to kill any child.
We must now , look, as Jews, to our teachings, teachings which I believe did much to shape what is good in the way we deal with our children, in all societies.
Now, perhaps in this light, we can appreciate opening chapter of Genesis, in which man and woman are called upon to" be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth."
Look at the activities of our matriarchs and patriarchs--how much of their lives revolved around children.
Most history books whether the ancient Herodotus or the modern Toynbee deal with kings and conquerors, the rise and fall of nations and states.
The Torah, too, is a doctrine of history, and while it too has its share of wars and nation-states, it starts its account of history with family. The nation is not the father of the family; rather, it is the outcome and extension of, the family.
The driving force in Abraham’s life is his family. Nothing is complete until the birth of Isaac by Sarah, his wife. It is for this that he lives, it is for this child that he pins his hopes of inheriting the land of Israel. It is this child he offers, and this child that God spares.
Isaac's joy and pain also come from his two sons who can not deal with each other.
Jacob, must deal with contentious son's, the theft of one, the threat of loss of another. The family fight is better than any TV soap opera.
As for mothers, our matriarchs are desperate because they feel their lives are incomplete until they have children. Sarah longs for a son, her handmaid, Hagar, struggles with her over whose son is to become the leader, Rebecca is concerned at the turmoil in her pregnant womb, Rachel and Leah compete for the birth of children.
Even the great empire makers can't find the meaning of their lives in the building of empire alone. The Bible is less concerned with the details of King David's magnificent victories, as it is with the troubles he goes through with his family. Son Amnon seduces daughter Tamer, then son Absalom murders son Amnon and then rebels against David, as does son Adonijah. What troubles! What " tsorres" !The Bible is very frank. Yet for all the troubles, when Absalom gets what he deserves and is killed in his rebellion, hung by his curly long hair, King David laments "Would that I had died in place of my son."
The Torah devotes so much attention to these cases, painful as they may have been, to highlight the great concern and depth of responsibility that bringing children in to the world carries with it.
A quick glance tells us how much of the Torah is aimed at the children.
The great statement, which Jews lived and died for, the Shma, has at its core, the obligation the same key theme, Veshinantem levanecha=You shall teach your children. The central Jewish event, the Seder, is at its core designed around educating the younger generation.
At least one entire book of the Bible must have been intended as a text-book in morals and values--the Book of Proverbs which opens with the declaration:
Shma , Bni--Listen, my child, to the teachings of your father, and do don't abandon the lessons of your mother. Notice, by the way, that it balances both father and mother as moral authorities. Not one or the other, but both, together.
Our people put so much stock in our children as the future, that we established history's oldest network of public and mandatory education. Others may have established armed camps and trained their children for martyrdom, but we established schools. We knew that, as long as our children chirped and sung their lessons in heder, no evil empire could ever conquer our souls The world exists only by virtue of the breath of little children in school, said the Talmud.
Now, we must put that ancient reverence for the future generations back on the front line, once again--for Jewish children, for Moslem and Christian children, for black, white,yellow, red. We must seek ways to make that atmosphere penetrate and permeate our society, that we see to it that every child born is born with the tools to reach a productive and good life. We need to once again forge a common bond , between the individual, the community organizations, churches and synagogues, and the government , to strengthen our families, to help our parents in the task if raising our future.
It is also a personal challenge, for we have to love children in the concrete, not just in the abstract, the children in front of us, not just in some political declaration.
Do you remember the commercial that would appear on TV, " It's 11 O'clock. Do you know where your child is?"
It's always 11 o'clock when we think of our children. Not just where are they physically, but where are they emotionally, morally, Jewishly, where are they in education and in the skills they need for a decent life. Father, mother, grandparents, aunts and uncles, elder friends-- all of us have a hand in it. I know that most of us here are well past the child-bearing years, but we all have a hand- whether it be our own immediate children and einiklach and so on, or relatives, but also in a broader sense, , a hand in the future of children in our community and country. We all have a hand.
I want to close with a story, from Rabbinic tales, of the Roman Emperor, Hadrian, who saw an old man planting a fig tree. He was astonished at the sight. How old are you, he asked?
A hundred years old.
A hundred years old, and you still stand there breaking up the soil
to plant trees! Do you expect to eat the fruit if those trees?
"If I am worthy, I will eat," said the old man, "But if not, as my father worked for me, I work for my children."
As our fathers and mothers worked for us, so may we achieve for our children and our neighbors children, and so may they strive on behalf of their children, create a better and more beautiful world than the one we inherited.. Amen.