I have seen the writing on the wall…
and it is colorful. There are blue and orange streaks all across one wall of our dining room. That was my daughter’s attempt to make a mural of people eating a Shabbos meal. We have some bright pink scribbles at the bottom of the stairs that probably mean to say, “Here are the stairs, can you pick me up and carry me?” We have a whole lot of pen marks on the wall by my five-year-old’s bed, it must be the inner poet in her just flowing out onto the walls with a panoply of poetic prose. But the colors don’t stop there. We have shoeprints on our walls, permanent marker on our hand-painted credenza, and too many amorphous scuffs on the furniture to count.
I have seen the numbers on the clock…
and they read 3:27AM. I have been seeing those number every ten minutes nightly from 12-4 AM for the past few weeks. For these are the exact hours that my precious infant has chosen as fussy time. So while the world sleeps, I swaddle, stroll, swing, stroke, soothe, sing, and pretty much do anything else that will keep my little bundle of joy happy and quiet. My sleep deprivation is so severe (no one gave me a few weeks of paternity leave!) that I need toothpicks to keep my eyes open at work.
I have seen the bank account…
and it is leaking cash like a lobbyist in a politician’s office. One recent economic study estimates that in a baby’s first year, parents will spend approximately $6,800 on diapers, wipes, formula, baby food, clothing, strollers, and other baby products. (The average American baby goes through 3,796 dirty diapers before graduating.) My own economic research has indicated that day camp tuition, food prices, children’s apparel and babysitting follow the trend of gasoline prices this past summer, which, if you hadn’t noticed, consistently headed north.
Children cost a lot, don’t contribute to a spotless home, and require an enormous amount of time. They limit people’s leisure activities, career opportunities, spending options, vacation venues, and beauty sleep. For these reasons, many people today push off having children until much later in life, or don’t have children at all. The more developed a society, the lower the birth rate. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for all the folks from the developing world, the world population would be shrinking rapidly, as it already is in many countries. In many corners of the globe, children aren’t too popular.
Yet, I couldn’t be more thankful to G-d for blessing our family with a new child, for entrusting our family with another soul. Why is that? Why am I so happy to have brought upon myself sleep deprivation, economic drain, emotional strain, and a host of limitations?
Let’s look at this question from a Jewish perspective. Why is having children such a high ideal in Judaism? Why is it the very first mitzvah in the Torah? Why have Jews traditionally always had high birth rates?
In order to understand this let’s look at the big question; What is the meaning of life?
In the Torah, a name represents a being’s essence. If we want to discover the meaning of our existence, our name should have the key. The Shelah (1565-1630, Prague- Jerusalem- Safed) explains that man is called Adam in the Torah because the word adam relates to the word adameh, which means to imitate, to be similar to. Our role in this world is to try to imitate G-d, to be as divine as possible. The Talmud (Tractate Sotah 14:A) describes this in the following statement;
R. Hama, son of R. Hanina, further said: What does this verse mean, “You shall walk after the Lord your God”? (Deut. 18:5) Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the Shechinah; for has it not been said, “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire”? (Ibid. 4:24) But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He.
But what is G-d like? We don’t see Him, we don’t hear Him giving lectures, and He’s never published an autobiography!
The Ramchal (1707-1746, Italy- Amsterdam- Israel), in his classic philosophical masterpiece Da’as Tevunos (The Knowing Heart), gives us a solution to our quandary. Even though we can’t see G-d, we can see His work, and from that we can discern the character of the Artist. We can see that G-d created a world even though, as a perfect being, He wasn’t lacking anything. If He didn’t create the world for Him, He must have created it for our benefit, to give us the pleasures of the life and world He gave us. As the Ramchal says, “It is of the nature of the good to do good for others” (Da’at Tevunot, Chap. 18).
If G-d created this entire world just so that He would have entities into which to pour His goodness, then the ultimate way we can emulate G-d is by also creating entities into which we can pour our goodness. This explains why having children is such an ideal in Judaism.
True, when someone has a child, they must give up many of the luxuries they might otherwise have, but that is exactly the point! People should not have children for what they can get from them, but for what they can give to them. This is what should inspire us to make it through endless diapers, endure countless “painted” walls, live without sleep (another way parents emulate G-d), struggle to support a growing family, and cook a never ending stream of meals. Every one of those actions is an actualization of our purpose in this world.
Not only does having children help us emulate G-d, it is also the most transformative experience there is. It forces us to become selfless, to grow beyond ourselves, to live a life focused on doing for others. When we create that new entity, with the sole purpose of pouring kindness into it, we are creating another new entity, a new self.
Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.