Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why Do We Have Children? A Speech for my Son Eitan’s Bar Mitzvah 4-17-2010

Why do we have children? What motivates people to bring small, demanding, and noisy dependents into the world?

This question is particularly relevant this morning, as the Steinmetz family celebrates our third Bar Mitzvah in 20 months.

And that’s a lot of bar mitzvahs!!

But imagine what it was like 13 years ago!! It was a lot of baby boys.

Your mother and I used to joke that we have triplets, carrying around you and Akiva and Hillel, three boys two years old and under. Then Ilana came along, and we had four children four and under.

So, we have to ask the question again: why do we have children? It can be a lot of work.

  1. The Rabbi’s Answer: To Teach

So if you ask a rabbi, he would tell you that having children is a mitzvah, the first mitzvah in the Torah, to be fruitful and multiply.

But what is the purpose of this commandment? To the Rabbi, the commandment of having children is not simply intended to populate the earth; it is part of a larger project, not just to give birth to the children, but to teach the children as well.

Rav Soloveitchik has explained that there are two levels of parenting: natural parenting and covenantal parenting.

Natural parenting is having children, following nature. In covenantal parenting, teaching becomes the key part of the parenting experience, in which the child is nurtured spiritually as well.

Soloveitchik’s comments underline how the role of father and teacher are already compared and combined in the Tanach, and even more so in the Talmud. Having children is simply a prerequisite to teaching children.

And we teach Torah because we must share, with our children, with our friends, and with the world, Torah wisdom and insights.

And this teaching mission starts with Abraham. Abraham teaches everyone about the foolishness of idolatry and the way to God.

And from Avraham on, we’ve been a teaching religion, and a religion of teachers. We have taught the world about:

belief in one God



man being in the image of God

and loving your neighbor and loving the stranger

And teaching has been your father’s passion too. That’s why I became a Rabbi, believe it or not.

I became a Rabbi because I loved Tanach and Talmud and Maimonides and Rav Zaddok and Rav Soloveitchik, and the Aruch Hashulchan. And I loved to teach about them.

Now I don’t expect you to become a Rabbi, Eitan….. but I do expect you to become a student of Torah and a teacher of Torah. That’s been the Jewish passion for the last 3,800 years, and it’s what Jews do.

And that’s why each generation of Jews looks forward to the next generation, to be able to pass the lessons of Judaism onto another generation.

  1. The Scientist’s Answer: To Love

But, if you ask a scientist, the reason we have children is simple: to ensure the continuation of the species.

To the scientist, the maternal instinct, and when it exists, the paternal instinct, the desire to raise children, is a deeply held instinct, shared by man and animal.

But even though this is a basic instinct, an animal instinct, the Torah honors it a great deal.

Maimonides in the Moreh Nevukhim (3:48) makes this point as well, when he says that one must treat the mother bird with compassion when taking her chicks because the concern of a mother for a child is the same, both in animal and in man. And if humanity wants to merit “long days”, they must treat the parent-child attachment (of all animals) with respect.

And although the scientist may not speak poetically, in actuality most of us call this instinct something else: love.

Love is the powerful, loving attachment and devotion of the parent for the child.

And that’s why this “instinct”, even when found in animals, is so admired. The Tanach often uses the images of animal parents watching over their young, because some of the most powerful images of parental love come from the animal kingdom, where love is absolutely instinctive. And there is nothing more beautiful than the love of a parent who will do whatever it takes to nurture their child.

Love is a powerful reason to have children. No it’s not easy to have children, to love children; it requires sacrifices.

In your own family, you have seen the enormous sacrifices mommy makes for you, and for all of the children.

Mommy works,

runs a home that is open to an entire community,

has volunteered abundantly for your school and for our community,

and she is a nurse,

a taxi driver,

a cook,

a homework tutor

a psychologist

to you and your three siblings!!

and look how she plans amazing and beautiful bar mitzvahs!!!

Now that’s love Eitan!

And Mommy’s love reflects the wonderful example set by her parents, by your Bubby and Zaidie, and the wonderful home they built, and how devoted they are to their three daughters and all of their grandchildren.

And I have seen my mother bring up four little children on her own, as a widow and single mother. She had to provide for us and care for us, and be a mother and father to us.

It wasn’t at all easy.

It was love.

And trust me, I didn’t make it easy for her. I wasn’t always a Rabbi!

One day when I was seven, I went into the garage in our home and decided to drive the car. The garage was on the top of a hill, and I released the emergency brake and parking brake; and the car rolled down the hill. My mother looked out the front door and shouted at me to jump out; she shouted at a neighbor riding his bicycle in the path of the car to jump off. The car rolled down the hill, ran into a telephone pole; the car’s back window got smashed, and the car lost the door I jumped out of.

(By the way, don’t you ever do anything like this!!)

To deal with situations like this, you need courage. More importantly, you need love.

But that powerful instinctive love is why we have kids. That’s why Mommy and I wanted to have you.

  1. The Simple Jew’s Answer: To Survive

So, you might ask scientists and Rabbis why they have children.

They might have sophisticated, thoughtful answers – and explain how instinctive it is to love, or how essential it is to teach.

But there is someone else you need to ask this question to as well: the simple Jew.

The simple Jew might not have any degrees; he might not have spent a great deal of time studying.

But the simple Jew has life experience, he has learned the lessons of history.

And if you ask the simple Jew: why do you have children?

He will tell you simply: we have children in order to survive.

Without children the Jewish people would disappear.

The Gemara (Sotah 12a) tells us that when the survival of the Jews in Egypt was in crisis, it wasn’t the great Rabbis and great leaders who led the way to survival – but rather a little girl. Amram, Moses’ father, was the leader of the generation. He decided that it was absurd for Jews to have children if the Egyptians would throw every male child into the river.

Now Amram’s decision was sensible and ethical, the sort of decision you’d expect from a great Rabbi. But his daughter Miriam, a young girl said to him: “Abba, if you do this, the Jewish people will disappear! If you do this, you’ll actually end up being worse than Pharaoh.”

Miriam was right, and Amram was wrong. Great Rabbis may have great ideas – but sometimes they outthink things, and miss the big picture.

When it comes to something as basic as survival, go ask a simple Jew what to do – that’s their specialty.

Simple Jews understand that for the Jewish mission to continue, we need to hang on.

To have children.

To survive

We now stand during sefirah – when we remember the destruction after the Bar Kochva revolt of 132-135.

At least 600,000 Jews were killed in the aftermath of the Bar Kochva revolt.

We also remember the events of the Crusades at this time of year. In 1096, during the First Crusade – 800 were Jews killed in the synagogue of Worms on May 18th.

Just this past Sunday night, right at this Bima, we had a community wide Yom Hashoah service, to commemorate the deaths of the 6 million, including your great grandfather and quite a few members of your family.

So how did we bounce back after all of this? How did we survive?

We survived because simple Jews knew they had to survive – they knew they had to rebuild after the Shoah, to have children and grandchildren.

They had one dream – to keep the Jewish people alive.

And that’s my dream too.

You know, my mother, your grandmother, is a survivor of the Holocaust.

One of her most powerful memories is in Auschwitz, Simchat Torah 1944.

In a dream, Bubbie had a vision of her late mother, who came to her and told her that everything would be OK.

Right afterwards, she was called out and selected to be among a group of people transferred to a work camp, a place much better for survival. Bubbie’s dream was so powerful, so vivid, she to this day has no doubt her mother appeared to her, and was truly watching over her.

But actually, what is most remarkable about this dream is that it reflects an earlier dream. While Bubbie is dreaming of her mother, there’s never any doubt in Bubbie’s mind that her mother is there with her. Bubbie knows that wherever her mother's soul may be, her mother is thinking of her, watching over her her,

Bubbie knows that her mother is always dreaming of her.

Bubbie knew, even when she was a small child, that her mother had dreams for her, dreams of a Jewish future.

And the truth is, it’s not just Bubbie’s mother, your great grandmother, who dreams of her children.

Every simple Jew has the same dreams.

The dreams of the simple Jew are:

to survive,

to have Jewish children,

to continue 3,800 years of Jewish History,

and to pursue the Jewish mission.

And so Bubbie’s mother dreamt of Bubbie surviving the Shoah, and continuing the Jewish tradition.

Then, Bubbie dreamt of me, Abba, continuing the Jewish tradition.

And now Mommy and I have a dream, Eitan.

And that dream is you.

We’ve been dreaming of you. And that’s why we had you.

We had you to love you.

We had you to learn with you.

And we had you to add another link in a 3,800 year old tradition.

May God bless you, and may you give us, and everyone else in this room, true yiddishe naches.

Mazel Tov!!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

God, The Holocaust, and Lighting a Candle in the Dark

Why do you believe in God?

Fifty one out of fifty two weeks a year, the answer is obvious. The world is beautiful and brilliant, a bright shining example of divine spirit and creativity. The book of Psalms gushes “how wonderful are your creations God, all were created in wisdom”, and Maimonides teaches that studying the scientific structure of the universe will inspire us to love the wise creator of the cosmos.

Philosophers call this the “teleological argument” for God, and I usually appreciate this argument. Step outside during the summer twilight, and you cannot fail but to be moved by the living poetry of the natural order, the divine harmony of birds, crickets and rustling leaves. The world is a bright and shining inspiration to faith.

But one week a year, this argument collapses completely. The week of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, leaves us numb with pain. It is not only the deaths of six million that overwhelm us; it is the barbarity with which they were murdered. Jan Karski, a member of the Polish Underground who was one of the first witnesses to tell the world about the Holocaust, reported about one such atrocity he witnessed in Izbica, Eastern Poland. There, a group of 120-130 Jews were forced into a train car made to fit 40 people, and the doors were slammed shut. On the floor of the train was quicklime powder, a chemical that generates enormous heat when mixed with water. The human sweat dripping down to the floor caused the quicklime to bubble, and painfully and slowly, the inhabitants of the cars began to burn. These poor victims cried in agony for over a day until they met their inevitable deaths.

How can one believe in God when such evil stalks the earth?

Dark deeds of evil challenge the faith of everyone, even great rabbis. The Talmud tells of Elisha Ben Avuyah, a Rabbinic leader who lost his faith when he witnessed a pig dragging around the tongue of a Rabbi who had been executed by the Romans. The Talmud seems to be insisting that we understand Elisha’s heresy, and to be aware that at times everyone doubts their faith.

The evil of the Holocaust challenges our faith not just in God, but in life itself. In the shadow of horrific evil, all joy seems like lunacy, and the pursuit of meaning seem like an absurdity. When the Gestapo eliminated the hospital in the Lodz Ghetto, the SS officers threw babies out of the window. One intrepid young officer, stationed on the street, decided to “catch” the flying babies on his bayonet, slicing through these innocent infants.

Who can believe in anything after witnessing such a crime?

Despair is particularly painful for sensitive souls. The students of Hillel are exceptionally humble and charitable; yet when it comes to discuss the value of life, they concluded “it would be better for man to have not been created than to be created”. These sensitive Rabbis take the suffering of the world to heart, and find it too overwhelming, and they are left wondering about the value of life.

In the dark shadows of the Holocaust, faith becomes a painful question rather than an easy answer.

Yet, despite doubts and despair, we teach, talk and think about the Holocaust. Instead of considering Aushwitz to be a theological disaster zone, we view it a semi-sacred site, a place for communal pilgrimages. We even send high school students to visit concentration camps on The March of the Living.

Presumably, exposing gentle young students to the dark horrors of the Holocaust should warp their souls and leave them cynical and bitter. But strangely enough, the students return from the March of the Living inspired. They walk up to the abyss and come into contact with the darkest horrors man has known; yet they walk away with a spiritual experience. Why does this happen?

Because man instinctively resists evil. The darkness of evil inspires us to do good, because our soul simply cannot tolerate evil. The Bible says “man’s soul is God’s candle”, and each soul has a profound spirituality. (Yes, this is still true despite the fact that the Nazis perverted and corrupted the image of God, burying their souls under a miasma of evil). Deep inside, we have a divine impulse that searches for goodness.

Even in the desperation of the death camps, there were heroes of kindness, like the man who saved Mayer Schondorf’s life. After an all night death march, sixteen year old Mayer’s cap blew off. Frozen and broken, Schondorf wanted to quit and step out of line, and get shot by the German guards. The man behind Mayer encouraged him to hold on, and when they passed by a corpse on the side of the road, this man risked his life to grab the cap and give it to Mayer. Enveloped by cruelty, this anonymous hero refused to capitulate; instead he lights a candle of kindness.

When confronted with evil, one needs to battle for the good; when confronted by darkness, one needs to light a candle.

When walking in Auschwitz, surrounded by the horrors of the Holocaust, belief comes from within, from our own souls. Repulsed by horror, our spirits stir, and demand that we transform ourselves and change the world. And that impulse to battle evil and do good is powerful evidence of the divine spirit within all of us.

Our souls, God’s candles on earth, can still light the path of faith in the darkest of places.