The scenes are some of the most poignant in the Torah.
Abraham, assured by God of great blessings, crying out in despair, “What can you possibly give me that has any meaning seeing that I am childless?”
Isaac and Rebecca weeping as they bemoan their barrenness while praying with all their hearts that God answer their cry for children.
Rachel pleading with her husband Jacob to intercede on her behalf so that she too, like her sister Leah, become pregnant – for if not “let me die.”
Fast-forward now to present day and discover the new reality as depicted in Time magazine’s recent cover story: The Child Free Life – when having it all means not having children.
The facts are startling. The American birthrate is at a record low. For many couples, having children is simply too much of a burden, a limitation on freewheeling lifestyles, a financial drain on their pocketbooks that could be used for far more pleasurable, self-fulfilling and self gratifying activities.
The American birthrate is at a record low. Many couples view having children as a limitation on freewheeling lifestyles.
As Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University, succinctly puts it, “Other commitments take the place of what motherhood might have meant.”
I know that some people simply aren’t suited for parenthood. In the grand scheme of things it might be better if those who are child-phobic or psychologically incapable of raising children aren’t faced with this responsibility. But what I am disturbed by is the new trend that opts for childlessness by choice under the mistaken assumption that this is the ideal way in which they can truly “have it all.”
Here are some numbers: 49% of childless women ages 40 to 44 are voluntarily childless. From 2007 to 2011, the most recent year for which there is data, the fertility rate declined 9%. A 2010 Pew Research report showed that childlessness has risen across all racial and ethnic groups, adding up to about one in five American women who ended childbearing years maternity-free, compared with one in 10 in the 1970s.
So here’s the great paradox. In a time when luxuries undreamt of by past generations are freely available to all but the lowest rung of society, having children has become too much of a drain on the economic and psychological resources of contemporary men and women seeking what they believe to be the most fulfilling lives possible for them.
Spokespersons for this new wave of “anti-child” philosophy say it is time for us “to question the reproductive imperative.” In other words God was being too demanding when He commanded us, “Be fruitful and multiply.”
Sure, having children isn’t easy. There’s no denying that being a parent is filled with obligations and burdens. It just starts with dirty diapers and midnight wake ups, and only becomes ever more challenging and difficult. As the Yiddish saying has it, “Without children, what would we do for aggravation?” And yet, ever since Adam and Eve – at least until today – people, like our biblical ancestors, prayed for children.
And why is that? Not only because having children is a divine imperative. Not only because children are the key to our own immortality. And not only because it is the ultimate act of ingratitude to the past to refuse on selfish grounds to assume the same kinds of obligations that made it possible for us to be here on earth and that would, if adopted by everyone, bring about global suicide. It goes far beyond all these reasons.
Choosing voluntary childlessness is to negate the divine image that is within ourselves – the Spirit of God whose first act recorded in the Bible was to become the Creator.
Jewish philosophers long ago asked the question. Since God is all sufficient within Himself, why was it necessary for Him to create us? God is Infinite, all perfect. He lacked nothing. Why did He need us? The answer is profoundly relevant. The world was created as an act of love. Part of what makes God perfect is his essence of Chessed. God is love and kindness and benevolence. These all require recipients. Divine love demanded creation – for without us as His children God couldn’t fully give expression to His true essence as our loving Father in Heaven.
A few weeks ago, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his position as chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, sent a congratulatory note to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of their first child. Of all the things he might have stressed on this occasion I found it intensely moving that Rabbi Sacks made the focus of his message the theme “the privilege of having the chance to love.” He wanted the new parents to know: “There is no more sacred task, nor any more rewarding. Every child conceived in love is testimony to a profound and moving faith in the future, in human renewal, and in life itself as the supreme blessing. And every parent in his or her heart knows that the real privilege lies less in being loved than in being given the chance to love.”
To fulfill our divine image we need the opportunity to love. We need to be among those who give rather than simply among those who take. We need to know the privilege of love just as an all perfect God “needed” us so that He could actualize His goodness.
Having children is the ultimate expression of being a creator like God.
The joy of creating a child, showering him with his every need, giving without any thought of return on their “investment” – this is a unique and deep love that cannot be replicated. Childless couples may have enough time and money to travel around the world, to fulfill every hedonistic fantasy, to live out their days in seeming delight, but they will never know experience the deepest form of happiness that comes from imitating God by becoming creators.
In this month of Elul, as we prepare for the High Holy days, we ought to remember that the theme of the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is God’s response to prayer. Not the prayer for wealth. Not the prayer for power. Not the prayer for success, however it be defined. We begin the New Year by recalling that God responded to the heartfelt prayers of Sarah and of Hannah and blessed them so they could conceive. As Jews, we have long ago learned that family will evermore be the key to personal fulfillment and happiness.