The Children of the Barren Ones
Torah Study Program: Hazon - Our Universal Vision
It is written concerning the Torah that "she is a tree of life" (Proverbs 3:18). In addition, the first mitzva - Divine mandate - which is recorded in the Torah is the mitzva to increase life: "Be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28). This mitzva also enables us to transmit the life-giving teachings of Torah to future generations.
Given the importance of this mitzva, men and women who are unable to have children may feel that their service of the Creator is inadequate. Many centuries ago, the Prophet Isaiah addressed this concern when he proclaimed the following Divine message to those without children:
"Let not the barren one say, 'Behold I am a shriveled tree.' " (Isaiah 56:3)
According to the classical biblical commentator, the Radak, the barren one is expressing the following concern: Of what use is my being in the world? Since I do not have a child, it is as though I did not come into the world, and God has no desire for me. I am but a dry tree that produces no fruit.
After conveying the Divine message that the childless person should not say, "I am a shriveled tree," the Prophet adds:
"For thus said the Compassionate One to the barren ones who observe My Sabbaths and choose what I desire, and tightly grasp My covenant. In My house and within My walls, I will give them a place of honor and renown, which is better than sons and daughters; eternal renown will I give them, which will never be terminated." (ibid 56:4,5)
People like myself who are unable to have children are not to consider themselves to be "shriveled trees." If they do what the Compassionate One desires, then they can be compared to fruitful trees. Their "fruits" are the good and holy deeds which they perform through fulfilling the teachings of the Torah, and these fruits are "better than sons and daughters." The Midrash elaborates on this idea:
Rabbi Judah Ben Shalom, the Levite, said that when a person departs from the world without children, he is troubled and weeps. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, says to him: "Why do you weep? Is it because you did not leave fruits in this world? You have left fruits which are more valuable than children!" The person then asks: "Master of the Universe, what fruits have I left?" And the Holy One, Blessed Be He, answers: "The fruits of Torah - the Tree of Life, as it is written (Proverbs 11:30): 'The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life.' " (Midrash Tanchuma, Noah 2)
In his commentary on this verse from Proverbs, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains: "For the righteous person, everything he does is a tree of life. Out of his every deed grows something beneficial and life-giving to his surroundings." (From the Wisdom of Mishle, page 69)
The above teachings may not fully comfort the barren ones who yearn to have children so that they can contribute to the continuity of the Jewish people. Jewish tradition teaches, however, that we can achieve this goal by giving birth in another way. For example, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 19b) states that if someone teaches his friend's child Torah, "it's as if he gave birth to him," as it is written (Numbers 3:1): "These are the offspring of Aaron and Moses... " The Talmud points out that the verses which follow only list the sons of Aaron, yet the Torah calls them the "offspring" of both Moses and Aaron! This is because Moses taught them Torah, and through his teaching, states the Talmud, he became their spiritual parent. Another example is the following statement (Sanhedrin 99b):
"Whoever teaches his friend's child Torah, it's as if he made him, as it is written (concerning the disciples of Abraham and Sarah): 'the souls they made in Haran' (Genesis 12:5)."
In Haran, Abraham and Sarah served as teachers and guides to the spiritually-searching men and women of their generation. The classical commentator, Rashi, in his explanation of the words, "the souls they made," states that they brought people "under the wings of the Shechinah - the Divine Presence." Their teachings gave new life to these searching souls, and from the perspective of the Torah, these are "the souls they made in Haran."
Like Abraham and Sarah, we live in an age of spiritually-searching men and women, as the Compassionate One proclaimed: "I will send hunger into the land - not a hunger for bread nor a thirst for water, but to hear the words of the Compassionate One" (Amos 8:1). In fact, some rabbis have called our generation the "dor yasom" - the orphaned generation. This is because most Jews today grew up without having Torah teachers to help them connect to their spiritual roots. These spiritual orphans are in need of spiritual parents, but one does not have to necessarily teach advanced subjects such as Talmud or Kaballah in order to help bring these souls "under the wings of the Shechinah." For example, I know of a single man who devotes his life to teaching Jewish adults how to read and write Hebrew, and he also teaches them how to pray from the Siddur (the traditional prayer book).
Another way to become a spiritual parent is to invite people to a Shabbos or Festival meal. Before moving to Jerusalem, I lived in Manhattan, and although I was single, I would often invite unaffiliated, searching Jews to my Friday night Shabbos meal. During these meals, we would chant wordless Chassidic melodies, and I would introduce certain Torah teachings or stories that would lead to a lively discussion. When I moved to Jerusalem, I was once approached by a man on the bus, who said: "You may not remember me, but I attended a number of Shabbos meals at your house when I was a student at New York University. I was feeling somewhat lost and alienated, and those Shabbos meals helped me to reconnect to my roots." He then invited me to his home for the Friday night meal.
Teaching Torah to others is not an "option" to be considered; it is a mitzva which is found in the first paragraph of the "Shema" that we say twice a day:
"And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children..."(Deuteronomy 6:6,7).
Rashi, in his explanantion of this verse, cites the tradition that "children" refers to "students." Rashi cites a number of biblical verses where students are called "children," and teachers are called "parents." One example is the lament of the Prophet Elisha, when his teacher, the Prophet Elijah, was taken up to heaven. Elisha cried out: "My father, my father, chariot of Israel..." (II Kings 2:12).
May the Compassionate One help all of us to teach Torah to our "children."
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
A Related Teaching:
It is written: "These are the offspring of Noah: Noah was a righteous man..." (Genesis 6:9). The verse begins to introduce the offspring of Noah, and before it mentions the names of his children, it tells us that he was righteous! Rashi states that this comes to teach us that Noah's most important offspring were his "good deeds" (based on the Midrash). This teaching leads to the following insight: A person who is unable to have physical children may have more energy and resources to devote to good deeds - his most important "children"! For further study on the spiritual compensation given to those who are single and/or childless, see the classical work, "Chovos Ha'levavos" - Duties of the Heart (Section 4 - the Gate of Trust). This discussion begins on page 419 in the English edition published by Feldheim: www.feldheim.com .
The author is the director of the E-mail Torah study program "Hazon - Our Universal Vision": www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/