Parshas Vayikra (5769)
With all the buzz (and outrage) over the so-called “Octomom” – the woman in California who, with the guidance of a fertility doctor, gave birth to octuplets after having already had six other children all under the age of seven - it got me thinking about what we are told about our own Jewish ancestors way back in ancient Egypt ... .
As we read in the Haggadah at the Passover Seder: “And there he [Israel] became a nation – great, strong and numerous” (Deuteronomy 26:5) – as the Torah says, “The Children of Israel multiplied, swarmed, increased, became exceedingly populous, until the land was full of them” (Exodus 1:7). Rashi, in his commentary to the Torah, writes in the name of the Midrash that this means that all the Jewish women in Egypt gave birth to (healthy) sextuplets!!!
Now if we are upset (as many are) at the Octomom and her doctor on the west coast who don’t seem to know when enough is enough – especially when she doesn’t even have a husband to help raise those kids or the financial means to support them – what can we say about our own great-great-grandmothers who gave birth to a “swarm” of kids while being enslaved in Egypt under even more difficult conditions?! Couldn’t G-d, the Ultimate Fertility Doctor, have done something to stop all these multiple births from happening until the Jews got out of Egypt and into better emotional, physical and financial shape?
[To be sure, the Jewish people throughout history have traditionally had big families, largely due to the Torah’s stress on the importance of family and children in ensuring the continuity of our nation with its vital mission to be a light unto the nations around us. However, the unnatural population explosion that our ancestors experienced in Egypt is hard to understand, given the huge numbers that were born in one shot and the less-than-optimum conditions.] I would like to suggest a possible reason why it was critical for the Jewish people - especially during that time in our history when we were being “forged” as a nation in the “crucible” of Egypt - to have larger families.
You see, in order for the Jews in Egypt to make themselves ready to accept the Torah, and with it, the responsibility towards their fellow Jews and the rest of the world, they needed to change from being slaves who care primarily about themselves and their own little world, into free people who care about and are responsible for others around them.
In fact, the prophet Ezekiel compares the Jews in Egypt to a little baby who needed to mature and grow up in order to merit being rescued from slavery and given the Torah (see Ezekiel 16:4-9). So that by the time we left Egypt, we had to learn to be independent and responsible adults who understood the mission G-d intended for us and were ready to carry it out – all of which took a lot of work on our part in order for us to get there.
And what better training ground for learning how to share and care and think about others – as opposed to being self-absorbed and focused on one’s own needs and desires – than growing up in a family with many children. As Rabbi Shmuley Boteach writes about young people who delay having children until their mid-thirties and then have one kid:
“At risk is not only the morbid disintegration of once great nations, like Japan and South Korea, both of whom average 1.1 child per family, or half the replacement rate, but something far more fundamental. When children have no siblings, they don't learn to share as much and they don't assume responsibility for taking care of one another. And the condition of being an only child runs the risk of fostering the very narcissism we decry, as the child becomes the epicenter of his parent's life with no other children to distract them.”
Could it be that G-d wanted to help our enslaved ancestors grow the way they needed to by giving them many siblings to share with and care for – which would force them at a young age to learn to be givers as opposed to takers – a critical ingredient necessary for their future success as the Jewish nation who would give Ethical Monotheism and so much more to the rest of the world.
Our Sages teach us that the exile in Egypt parallels the final exile that the Jewish people will have to endure before the Messiah sets us free and brings us back to our Homeland. And whatever it took for our ancestors to free themselves from slavery in Egypt is what we need to do today to get out of our own slavery in our own Egypt.
You see, the world we live in today is quite self-centered and self-absorbed. We have raised a generation whose primary focus is “what have you done for me lately?” I think the Botox ads say it best: “Three Good Reasons: Me, Myself and I”. (Not that there is anything wrong with Botox injections … it’s just the ad that bugs me). If you think about it, we are all enslaved like our ancestors were in Egypt – only now it’s not to Egyptian taskmasters but to our own needs and desires. And all this self-centeredness is not doing much good for society.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach writes how this affects our choices when it comes to having children:
“Children consume time and resources both of which young adults would rather focus on themselves. Better to have the availability, and the cash, to jet to Paris for the weekend then push a kid on some dumb swing. Not that we don't love kids any more. We do, but in an abstract as-long-as-it-doesn't-interfere-with-our-freedom kind of way. Having them in our thirties, and about one or two max, minimizes the disruption.
Never before in history has a civilization skewed more away from the needs of the community and toward the aggrandizement of the individual. In the United States, a warrior class consisting of about two percent of the population fights bad guys in Baghdad and gets blown up in Kabul while the rest of us go on Facebook to update our "friends" as to our emotional state. The regular flow of Facebook status updates telling us that "Jane feels like shopping today" or "Mort misses his ex-girlfriend Linda" feeds the Truman Show mentality of American youth who are taught to believe that the whole world revolves around them. Sacrifice be damned.
So, when you ask twenty-something Westerners to contemplate parenthood -- with its diapers, school runs, and estimated $250,000 cost of raising a child to adulthood -- they think you fell off the moon. Spend my life focused on someone else, even if it is my own child, have you gone mad?” Maybe the lesson for us as we read the Haggadah this year and retell the story of how our ancestors in Egypt just couldn’t stop having kids no matter how difficult it was to raise them, is the idea that the only real way to “fix the world” and “bring the redemption” is to become less self-absorbed in our own needs and lives, and more concerned about the other six billion people sharing the planet with us. And the best place to start this radical shift from selfishness to selflessness is in our own families and with our own kids – one kid (or six) at a time.