More than a decade ago I was invited on to the Esther Rantzen show to talk about whether children need fathers. Obviously I was arguing for the motion, but one of the women arguing against it had a son conceived by artificial insemination. Her son would never know the identity of his biological father. When asked why she wanted a child, she said that she felt a natural urge to be a mother, that her biological clock was ticking away and that she saw no reason why she should she lose out just because she did not have a partner with whom to have the baby.
It seems that the Torah in Beraishit agrees with her. Nowhere do we find Adam, the primordial man, called the father of humanity. Eve, by contrast, is called aim kol chai, the mother of all living. Adam is not given any credit for his role in the creation of the human race.
Rav Soloveichik points out that the story of creation is really about the natural world and in the natural world it is the woman who is involved with the birth of a baby. It is the mother who carries the baby for nine months, who goes through the pains of labour and who has the ability to nurse the baby during its first few months of life. The father’s only mandatory contribution is at conception. If after that the father disappears, the baby will still be born and is still perfectly capable of living a healthy life.
The first person to given the title of father by the Torah is Avraham. When HaShem changed his name form Avram to Avraham, G-d did so because he would become the av hamon goyim,the father of a multitude of nations. What did Avraham do to have the privilege of being called a father? What did Avraham have that Adam was lacking? Why was Avraham, who was only to be the father of some nations, given the title ‘father’ while the biological father of all of humanity was not so honoured?
Rav Soloveichik gives a very profound answer to this. Avraham and his wife, Sarah, started a society that was based not on doing things to perpetuate themselves but rather on helping others. Avraham and Sarah were the first people to care about the destiny of others. Noah, for example, cared only about himself and his family and did not beg G-d to save the generation, whereas Avraham was the first to realise that by educating others one could turn them into real assets to society and therefore to take responsibility for the education of others.
He and Sarah dedicated their life to spreading their message of ethics, morality, justice, charity and monotheism and thus generated many followers. When they left Charon by the command of G-d, they took with them et hanefesh asher asu becharon, the souls that they made in Charon: this could not have meant biological children because they at that time they had none. Rather, it meant the followers that they had attracted by selflessly educating others about their new brand of ethical monotheism.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that Sarah’s name change from Sarai signalled that she was an equal partner in the promises that HaShem gave to Avraham. So, just as Avraham became the father of a multitude of nations, Sarah also was the mother of a multitude of nations – without having given birth to a child.
Whereas Eve was only the mother of all living, Sarah now became the mother of a multitude of nations and would eventually give rise to kings. It was their dedication to the education of others that earned Abraham and Sarah – and not Adam and Eve – the title father and mother of a multitude of nations.
Adam and Eve represent our natural instinct, like the women on the TV show on which I featured. Our natural desires for children stem from our instinct to perpetuate ourselves. Avraham and Sarah represent the higher, more spiritual ideal of parenthood – where the father and mother go beyond their basic biological roles and become educators who shape the life of their children. The Torah is telling us that real parenthood comes out of dedication to others. In fact, the Halacha states that if one’s father and one’s teacher are both held captive, one must free one’s teacher before one frees one’s father. This reflects the idea that real parenthood, parenthood that deserves real, unconditional respect from one’s children, is sacrificial parenthood. Many of us here are parents. We often find it difficult to take the time to educate our kids properly: often the quick fix of punishing our children rather than taking the time to explain and deal with the problem properly is more attractive.
As I was preparing writing this article, my three year old son knocked on my office door asking for a hug. I was very busy. What should we do? Do we stop what we are doing and tend to our child or do we just say Abba is busy and tell him to go away? This is our challenge. When our children nag us for something that may not be educationally beneficial to them, do we give in to them just in order to have a little peace and quiet? Or do we take the time to entertain them ourselves in an educational manner? This is our challenge. Our role as parents goes beyond being the natural biological parents of our children. It extends to their education. It is our responsibility to make sure that they grow up to be responsible members of the community and an asset to society as a whole. Doing this takes self-sacrifice and dedication.
This idea of selfless dedication to others is also symbolised by Sukkot. On Sukkot we leave the comforts of our home and go out into the sukkah. Our home symbolises our private place, our four cubits, which only we inhabit and where those who enter do so only with our permission. We could say our home is our selfish space. The sukkah is the opposite of this. It is outside and not so comfy and whether we like it or not we have guests. The Kabbalists tell us that each night of Sukkot we have guests. Abraham appears the first night, Isaac the second, etc. They intrude on our privacy and enter our sukkah. Thus the sukkah forces us not to be selfish but to allow room in our lives for others and consider their needs.
After spending time in the sukkah, we return to our homes and bring with us the caring, altruistic attitude we learnt in the sukkah.
This is what caring about education does to parenthood. By caring for the education of others, by dedicating ourselves to the betterment of others, by making sure that our children are educated to be moral, ethical upstanding members of humanity and by giving them the opportunity to learn about the beauty of the Torah and Judaism, we redeem that natural instinctive act of selfishness that caused us to have our children in the first place. We therefore now rightfully earn the title ‘father’ or ‘mother’. When this happens we become worthy of unconditional respect from our children.
May we all merit true Nachas (pride) from our children.