Sunday, July 07, 2019

Children, Dear Children

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau tells about a speech he heard as a 10 year old child, in a displaced children’s center in Ecoius, France. A group of local politicians came to visit the center, filled with the youngest survivors of the Holocaust. The children did not want to listen to the politicians, and sat stone silent, ignoring the speakers. But then the final speaker got up. As Rabbi Lau describes him, the man “was a Jew who had survived Auschwitz, where he had lost his wife and children.  Since the liberation, he had dedicated all his time, energy, and resources to war orphans.” 

Rabbi Lau describes what happened next:

“At that moment, without any advance planning, five hundred pairs of eyes lifted in a look of solidarity toward the Jew standing on the stage.  He was one of us.  We looked at him, and he saw hundreds of pairs of eyes fixed on him in a powerful gesture of empathy.  Tears choked his throat.  He gripped the microphone, and for several long seconds, the microphone broadcast only the sounds of his hands shaking.  He tried to control himself, but managed to say only three words in Yiddish:  “Kinder, taiyereh kinder” (“Children, dear children”). Then he burst into tears.…...We all considered it unmanly to cry, since, after all, we had survived the concentration camps.  Yet each boy sitting on the grassy plaza stealthily wiped his eyes with his sleeve….then the dam broke.  All at once, the lawn of [the orphanage] was transformed into a literal vale of tears.” 

This Holocaust survivor, alone in the world, has devoted himself to the remaining Jewish children in Europe. In three tear choked words, he can summarize his mission: “Kinder, taiyereh kinder”.

This mission is the theme of Rosh Hashanah. The Torah Reading and Haftorah of  Rosh Hashanah are unlike that of any other holiday; they are not about the rituals and sacrifices of the day, nor are they about the essence of the day, such at creation or judgement. Instead, these two readings are about two infertile women, Sarah and Hannah, struggling to conceive. The lesson is simple; on the one day when we focus on our dreams for the future, we need to remember that the way we get there is by the love we give our children, our dear children.

This lesson may seem simple, but it is not.

The first part of this lesson begins in the text; building a child centered community only magnifies the pain of those who struggle with infertility. Sarah and Hannah are role models, and lead successful lives. Yet nothing quite stings like their inability to conceive, and the insensitive attempts by others to offer them “perspective” makes their pain worse. I hesitated more than once before writing this for the bulletin, worried that it might be misunderstood and cause pain to some of the people reading it. The Torah and Haftorah readings have a clear message: we cannot talk about our dreams for family without praying for, and embracing, those who struggle to build families of their own; and I hope this sermon is understood in a similar fashion.

The second lesson is that our children are a sacred trust. The text makes it clear that the babies born to Sarah and Hannah are a divine gift; and so is every baby.  Therefore, we must cherish them, protect them and love them unconditionally. They are our “tayereh kinder”, our  dear, dear children.

This love might seem universal, but it is not; children were not loved in every culture and era. At times, entire societies showed marked indifference to children. Phillipe Aries[1]  has argued that deep bonds of love between parent and child were uncommon in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. While his point of view has many detractors, Aries has some significant evidence. In one example, a woman in the 17th century gives comfort to her neighbor who had just had her fifth child by saying: “before they are old enough to bother you, you will have lost half of them, or perhaps all of them”[2].   Aries’ insight is that parental instinct alone isn’t enough to ensure that parents love their children; the culture of the community plays a significant role as well.

Jewish culture was very different. Ephraim Kanarfogel[3] points to multiple sources, both Jewish and Christian, that portray a different picture of the Jewish home.  One is a comment of Rabbeinu Asher[4], (1259 – 1327) the 13th century German Rabbi, who comments on the common phrase “the pain of raising children” (tzaar giddul banim) by saying that “children do not bring one pain, only joy”. Even when children are a challenge for us, we must see them as a joy.

The next lesson of holding children dear is we need to cherish them for who they are. This too might seem obvious, but it is not.

Kanarfogel notes that one of the greatest contrasts between medieval Jews and Christians is in the area of education. In the early 12th century, a student of Peter Abelard writes[5] that unlike Christians, “a Jew, however poor, would put even ten sons to letters, not for gain, as Christians do, but for the understanding of God’s Law, and not only his sons but also his daughters.” (Even Jewish daughters are being taught in the 1100’s in France, and that is notable.)

This intense emphasis on education is rooted in the commandment to study Torah. From it, a powerful culture of educational excellence grew. Yet at the same time, a strong awareness arose that not every child is the same, and that excellence in education means educating each child differently. The 12th century Sefer Chasidim[6] offers the following educational directives. First, you can’t have students of different abilities in the same class. And if a student is not adept at Talmud, have him study Bible, or basic laws instead. Every student deserves an education on their own level.

But this is not easy to do, because we want naches.

There is a Jewish joke about a birth announcement in the newspaper that reads: "Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Rosenberg are pleased to announce the birth of their son, Dr. Jonathan Rosenberg." Unfortunately, too often the education of children is more about the parent than the child. What the child learns becomes part of “achievement by proxy syndrome”, where the parent lives in the child’s reflected glory. And too often, naches becomes oversized expectations. To this point, the comedian David Bader wrote a haiku entitled the “Jewish Mother’s Lament”:

Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I've done?
But what about the children who won't win Nobel Prizes, and do not fit the standard definition of naches? And what about the boy who doesn’t belong in an elite educational program? Samson Raphael Hirsch[7] raises this point in an essay about Esau and Jacob. He faults their parents, Isaac and Rebecca, for assuming that they both could be educated in the same intellectual Yeshiva style. He argues that Esau lost his way because his parents didn’t appreciate that he was not the same as his brother:

“Had Isaac and Rebecca studied Esau's nature and character early enough, and asked themselves, how can even an Esau, how can all the strength and energy, agility and courage that lies slumbering in this child be won over to be used in the service of God … then Jacob and Esau, with their totally different natures could still have remained twin­ brothers in spirit and life; quite early in life Esau's "sword" and Jacob's "spirit" could have worked hand in hand...”

Not every child is meant to be a Talmud prodigy, and there isn’t just one path for them. And whatever career they choose, they still are our dear, dear children.

One final lesson must be mentioned.  We might think that a desire for children is obvious. But it is not. Many people don’t want to have more children.

These words are not intended to preach. Every parent thinks twice before deciding to have another child, and spouses often argue about family size. But it is often the best and brightest who decide against having more children, and those who opt to have more children are seen as strange. Mark Oppenheimer[8], writes about having a fifth child that “among people we know, this makes us a bit odd.” When friends would ask him why he was having another child, and his pithy answer was “we think five will be better than four.” He elaborated on his answer with a beautiful essay about the joy of parenting. One point in his essay caught my eye, a reminder that for Jews having a child is much more than just having a child:

“Because I want there to be more Jews in the world. My people suffered a huge demographic catastrophe within my parents’ lifetime, and I like the idea of doing my small part to repair that damage.”

With these words, Oppenheimer is echoing what the tear choked Holocaust survivor said 70 years before: they are our “kinder, tayereh kinder”. Nothing is more dear than another link in the chain of tradition, nothing is more dear than a gift from God.

Yes, they are our dear children. They are our future. Please cherish them.

 (Delivered - Rosh Hashanah 2018)

[1] Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, Penguin, 1962
[2] Aries, page 37.
[3] Ephraim Kanarfogel, Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages, Wayne University Press, pages 34-40
[4] Tosafot HaRosh Sanhedrin 19b, s.v.”shepadau”
[5] Kanarfogel, page 16
[6] Parma edition, 823-825
[7] Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Volume 7, Feldheim, 1997 pages 319–32
[8] “Yes, We Really Do Want to Have a Fifth Child” by Mark Oppenheimer, Wall Street Journal, Aug. 24, 2018

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