Return to Previous Page
Rabbi Jack Moline Website
Home | Profile | Works | Links
Sermons
Children
Rosh Hashanah 2, 5766/2005
© Rabbi Jack Moline

If you have been here before on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, you know that I am willing to do a little bit edgier stuff. When I say edgier, you hear offensive. So let me own up to it right away. Some of you many of you are going to decide to be offended at what I have to say. Please try to withhold your indignation until you hear me out. Believe me, it is not my intention to single you out, or you and others like you, for offense with this sermon.

I want to talk about children.

In particular, I want to talk about the need for more Jewish children. So let me begin by acknowledging a few very important things.

The first is, more than half of the households in this congregation do not include children who are currently the primary responsibility of a parent. That number includes empty nesters, singles, newly marrieds, people who have not had their yearnings for children fulfilled and people who have never had a yearning for children. Of that number, about a third eighty or so are people who live in households in which there were never any children.

So while it is true that most of the members of this congregation are parents, it is not true that most are in the care-giving years of parenthood.

It is also important to acknowledge that quite a number of households in this congregation, perhaps as many as fifty, have faced obstacles to becoming parents, even though they have wanted children. For some of them, the obstacle has been finding a life partner. For some of them, the obstacle has been physiological. Among them all, some have sought out options in promoting fertility that exist only because we have the good fortune to live in the times we do. Others have fulfilled that desire by adding children to their families who were born to other parents adoption, foster parenthood or less formal arrangements involving the children of close relatives.

Our prayers are with those whose yearnings are as yet unanswered, and our gratitude is with those who have found the children meant to be theirs in other states, other countries, other continents.

The second thing we need to acknowledge is this: the overwhelming number of participants in the adult programming we do at this congregation come from households with no children at home. You pick the program Men's Club and Sisterhood, Life-long Learning, even our Board of Directors and they will count the majority of their participants as people who are not changing diapers, helping with homework or needing to miss time at the office to make an appointment with the pediatrician.

I begin with these acknowledgments because I don't want you to think that I am out of touch with your reality. For most of you, childbirth and childrearing are not immediate concerns. Yesterday I spoke of Israel, which is everyone's concern. Next week, I will speak of other matters that are everyone's concerns. But it is entirely possible for most of you to decide you don't need to pay much attention to what I am about to say.

If so, please change your mind. Because I think it's just awful when I have to begin a sermon like this by making excuses.

There was a time when there was no question that we did everything for the children. We are instructed to build a school building before a house of prayer. We married not for love and personal fulfillment, but for children. We stayed in marriages that were sad or difficult or loveless for the children. We made a lot of babies, and we made them the way people vote in Chicago early and often.

The architects of our tradition men, all of them, to be sure taught in the Talmud that if a man takes a wife and lives with her for ten years and she bears no children, he is to divorce her and pay her the value of her ketuba. Why? Not because she has somehow disappointed him, as you might suspect, but because he might not have the merit to father children by her. (Yev 64a) She should have the chance to marry a man more worthy of her.

The founders of our tradition were all about the kinder. When Abraham and Sarah were childless for decades, she insisted he cohabit with her maidservant, Hagar, so that there would be a child in the family. Isaac, meek and mild Isaac who never asked for anything, entreated God on behalf of his wife because they so desperately wanted children. Jacob, known as Israel, fathered 13 children by two wives and their maidservants, and in admiration for his efforts to build the people of God, we have become known by that legacy we are the children of Israel.

My father's generation had 48 first cousins. He would have had more, but some of them were related to him twice, since a variety of members from two families married each other. My generation has fifteen. My kids' has eleven. Two of my first cousins are Baptists. Three of them are married to non-Jews and are raising their children mildly Jewish. Four of my cousins are not married, though one of them adopted a child, but has no particular Jewish life to speak of. I love them all and I honor the choices they have made I report these anecdotes to you because they illustrate that even in my family, in three generations we have dwindled from a swarm to a group to a joyful event every couple of years.

In this congregation, we are seeing the same phenomenon. Membership in Agudas Achim has never been larger than it is today. There are enough of you sitting here who can remember when the Valley Drive Co- op Preschool met here, founded and run by members of this congregation. It was necessary because of all the kids we had. We had so many kids that the religious school under Sol Rabinowitz had a satellite campus and split shifts to accommodate all of the children. And my contract, like Rabbi Elster's before me, which is otherwise vague about the specifics of my rabbinic duties, requires me to teach our children and teach our children well.

But our religious school enrollment today is not significantly different than it was when our membership was half of what it is now. The Valley Drive Co-op meets up the street in Fair-Park Baptist Church. When I arrived here, we had sixty kids in Jewish day schools. I doubt that the number is half that 18 years later.

Folks, this is a wonderful congregation. Sure, we have our share of financial concerns and our collection of characters so does every congregation. But we have gone twenty years without a major congregational conflict, and you have built a reputation for integrity and quality that is known quite literally around the world. We could do a lot of things better, but pound for pound, this place is about as good as it gets.

Except for one thing.

We don't have enough children. I make no criticism of the quality of the children we have they are, person for person, better then the above-average children of Lake Woebegone. I make no criticism of the way they are being raised all but one of you are doing a magnificent job, and I only mention the one so you won't get smug and slack off. We simply do not have enough.

Perhaps I should just dismiss you with instructions to try again. Those of you of a certain age are probably horrified by the prospect. Those of you who have tried achingly without success are probably insulted. Those of you who are the only adult in your household are probably readying some barb to sling at me about motives and opportunities. And those of you with little ones at home are planning to flag my number in the synagogue directory so you can call me at 3 in the morning and say, "your sermon wants to talk to you."

Relax. Most of you are off the hook. Don't forget the demographics I mentioned at the beginning of this talk your circumstances won't change just because I say they should.

Instead, we have two things to do. The first has to do with the message we communicate to the children we are blessed to raise and educate. Some of you remember a sermon I gave fifteen years ago or so entitled "the ten things Jewish parents don't say enough to their children." Here is number eleven, though I think it fits just below "here's what I believe about God," which was number 1. Have a large family. Three children should be the minimum we encourage our kids to have. If their physical well-being allows, they should have more.

Don't be taken aback by that suggestion, and don't be upset by it. We tell our kids to study hard so they can go to a good college, and not all of them are smart. We tell our kids to work hard so that they can succeed and make a good living, and not all of them do. We tell our kids to marry Jews, and not all of them marry Jews some of them don't even marry at all. It is not harsh judgment to express our values and to let our children know that they are responsible for maintaining those values by personal action and a certain amount of self-sacrifice. And just as I hope you do not convey the message that if your child does not go to college, does not succeed in business, does not choose a partner who is your ideal, you will somehow love her or him less, I insist that you not append "or else" to the message that you would like to be a grandparent many times over.

I have not mentioned population surveys and world-wide demographics at all, and I won't. People do not live their lives in statistics, they live them in anecdotes. The only statistic that matters to the individual is the one that guarantees 100% uniform results. Otherwise, this crazy gene we have that makes us hope and dream convinces us that each of us is the exception to the rule. So never mind about birth rates and marriage rates and mortality rates.

But I will mention anecdotes, just to stimulate your thinking. How old were your parents when they were married? How old were they when they began having kids? And what about your grandparents? Virtually without exception, though exceptions there are, the age when marriage and children were expected has been climbing steadily.

As Jews, we have discovered an amazingly effective form of birth control. It is called graduate school. Because we have effectively communicated how important education and self-actualization is to our children, they have taken us seriously and postponed considering children until late into their twenties and sometimes late into their thirties. By the age many of them get around to having their first child, my father's generation had produced 48 first cousins. We can correct that if we will only return to valuing children as highly as we value the education we give them.

Listen, those of you who are single and those of you who married later in life and those of you who have tried without success to be parents I know that you are rolling your eyes or holding back tears or waiting for an opportunity to say "how dare you." With all due respect, with all love and honor for you, I say these words: get over yourselves. As a community, we value your life, your circumstances, your contributions, your wisdom, your presence, your leadership to the last ounce. As a person and a rabbi, I do not judge or criticize the circumstances you are in. As a congregation, we continue to provide for you the lion's share of opportunities to serve and be served by the synagogue. But when I die or retire, you are going to need another rabbi. When Elisheva reaches her 120 years, you are going to need another hazzan. When those babies we welcomed yesterday have babies of their own, we are going to need rabbis and hazzanim and teachers and youth group advisors and camp counselors for them. We value those babies as much as we value you, and we value you as much as we do those babies. But there's no point in contributing money to the Jewish Theological Seminary if we have no students to contribute.

And as for you who are blessed to be married and healthy and secure and able to produce beautiful, wonderful kids, here's the other shoe you have been waiting to hear drop: have one more than you planned. Rabbi Kass Abelson, one of the great rabbis of our generation, calls them mitzvah children he has been calling them that for fifty years. I have met many adults who have told me with great pride, "I am one of Rabbi Abelson's mitzvah children."

If this were the sum total of my message to you today, then there would have been no point in delivering this sermon. I could have sent a short note to less than half the congregation with a Barry White album. But there is something else we need to do.

Childrearing is no different today than it has been for the last 5,766 years. But the circumstances of childrearing bear no resemblance to what used to be. I don't need to tell you that it takes a lot of money to live in Northern Virginia, usually more than one person can earn just for him- or herself. The opportunities we have created for women of all ages and circumstances to be a part of the work force have turned into expectations. The expectations we tried to create for men to share childcare responsibilities have turned into regrets. And the village that it takes to raise a child no longer exists. The streets of this neighborhood are patrolled during the day by a variety of childcare providers pushing strollers with their tiny charges. Mom and Dad are at work; Grandma and Grandpa live in another state or are not of an age to handle a toddler. Cousins, aunts and neighbors are looking for their own help during the day, or are leaving for their jobs at 6:30 in the morning and returning exhausted after beddy-bye time for the baby. The Valley Drive Co-op is not so co-op anymore.

Our encouragement to others to have children must be matched by our willingness to provide the support that mothers and fathers need to raise those children. I will not fall into the trap that so-called pro-life groups have by suggesting that human rights begin at conception and end at birth. Affordable, appropriate childcare for our precious Jewish children is the responsibility of every member of the Jewish community. Those of us who cannot contribute the babies must contribute the resources to care for the babies. That includes money, time and allocation of resources.

In the general community, that means advocating for and supporting leaders who promise to fully fund the broadest range of public education and childcare opportunities. In the Jewish community, that means advocating for and contributing to institutions like the JCC that have the facilities and the facility to care for lots of kids. At Agudas Achim, that means prioritizing the Agudas Achim Performing Arts Pre-school, the best hope to provide the missing piece in this congregation's otherwise excellent program.

About twelve years ago, when Gesher moved out of Agudas Achim, the building fell silent during the day. Those of us on staff and lay boards who jostled elbows with the expanding day school were guiltily relieved when the school was gone. The building was easier to maintain, our classrooms were our own again, the space we had surrendered was returned to us.

I work here almost every day. I never realized how quiet this place had become, how desolate it seemed, until the first week in September when our doors opened to our first classes of students. The joyful noise that fills our hallways now is the finishing touch our renovation has needed for ten years. There is singing and laughing and crying and shouting and clapping. I can step out of my office during one of the many bathroom breaks each day, sit cross-legged on the floor and hear amazing news about pets, siblings, Jewish holidays, body functions and subjects that make no sense at all, but still require full attention and heartfelt affirmation.

I am grateful that these children are here. And I am equally grateful that they are not my children. I acknowledge on behalf of all of you who are finally sleeping through the night and going to the movies on a whim and displaying your breakables lower than four feet off the floor that I am relieved that these are someone else's children.

But I am also grateful that I have been given another chance to be a part of the best adventure I ever had exploring the world through the eyes of innocence and helping those eyes to make sense of what they see. Jewish life, Jewish practice, Jewish values and Hebrew language are making a permanent imprint on the souls of these tiny treasures because we, this congregation of 275 childless households, are making it possible.

Our pre-school is not an add-on; it is not an independent operation. We run a pre-school because it is a necessary part of running a synagogue. When we added an Executive Director to our staff thirteen years ago, when we added a full-time hazzan to our staff twelve years ago, we integrated them into our program and our budget right away. When we added the Florence Melton Adult School and the Jewish Theological Seminary Torah Institute to our program, we assumed that the in-kind contributions of meeting space, maintenance, office support, volunteer time, utilities and staff hours would be absorbed by the shul and parceled out of our resources. In a literal sense, we have never recouped the loss that hiring me caused this congregation. It would be a lot cheaper to let me go, or to put me on part-time status, and I would appreciate it if those of you vigorously nodding your heads would stop.

But absent a place for the smallest among us, absent a tangible encouragement to our members and our non-members to bring their babies here, absent a willingness to do our part to help support the courageous and loving people willing to bring another member of the covenant into this world, we ought to declare ourselves a hospice and plan to close our doors when the number of first cousins in a generation is smaller than the number of siblings in your grandfather's family.

Let me tell you about Shimon ben Azzai. Ben Azzai was a beloved disciple of Rabbi Akiva and one of the brightest students he ever had. Akiva was so impressed with Ben Azzai that he offered him his daughter in marriage. Remember, it wasn't about love back then.

Who knows why Ben Azzai accepted the betrothal, but never completed the marriage. He remained a bachelor all his life. I leave it to you to speculate on the reasons, but I can report to you a midrash that purports to explain it. The midrash comes with a warning those of you unhappy with this sermon so far won't be any happier to hear the midrash.

We have been taught that Rabbi Eliezer said: One who does not engage in fruition and increase (that is, in having children) is as though he has shed blood, for the verse, "Whoever shed's another's blood, by human beings shall his blood be shed" (Gen 9:6) is followed immediately by the verse, "Be fruitful and multiply" (Gen 9:7). Rabbi Akiva said: Such a person is as though he diminished the image of God, for the verse "In the image of God, [God] made the human being" (Gen 9:6) is followed immediately by the verse "Be fruitful and multiply." Ben Azzai said: He is as one who BOTH sheds blood and diminishes God's image.

What a hypocrite! Ben Azzai, who had the chance to marry the daughter of Rabbi Akiva and produce children from the two brightest teachers of the time, instead devoted his life to scholarship. You might expect such a man to leap to the defense of those who were childless, but instead he compounds the condemnation. What possibly could have been going through the man's mind?

The point was not lost on Rabbi Eliezer.

Rabbi Eliezer said to Ben Azzai: Such words sound fine when they come from the mouths of those who practice them. There are some who preach well and practice well. Others practice well, but do not preach well. You preach well, but do not practice well.

Ben Azzai, you will recall, was a student of Akiva, and therefore a student of Rabbi Eliezer as well. It took a certain amount of chutzpah to begin with to speak up in front of his teachers, but to respond to this rebuke from Rabbi Eliezer well, that's another story still. But respond he did.

Ben Azzai replied: But what shall I do, seeing as my heart yearns for Torah? The world can continue through others. (Yev 63b)

We don't know a whole lot about Ben Azzai other than the details I shared. He is one of the four brilliant scholars who entered Paradise, and whether actually or symbolically, he died when he beheld the glory of the presence of God. I don't know whether Ben Azzai was simply consumed by his love of learning, or whether he felt sexually inadequate, or whether he was gay, or whether he was infertile. I don't know if he figured he had plenty of time as a young man and then found out otherwise. But I do know that Rabbi Eliezer did not have an answer for this childless single man who had an opportunity to marry that did not come to fruition.

But I do. And the answer is from Ben Azzai himself in his response to Rabbi Eliezer. What shall I do, seeing as my heart yearns for Torah, he asks? It is to make sure that the world can continue through others. It's not just a matter of numbers, though numbers are important. It is also a matter of the quality of the life we provide for each one of those numbers. Some people, plain and simple, cannot or will not be the parents of children. But the inability to be a biological father or mother, or the inability to be a single parent or adoptive parent does not mean that the importance of children is lost on the Ben Azzais of the world.

I know what the good and dear members of this congregation do, those whose hearts yearn for Torah and children, but can realize only Torah. They teach, they comfort, they baby-sit, they donate, they encourage. The individual actions they take and the actions they take as individuals are as genuine and enthusiastic as Ben Azzai.

And I know the transformative effect that becoming a parent, a grandparent, an uncle or an aunt has on the good and dear members of this congregation, of any community. I remember hearing from a friend who is a congregant of a synagogue a long way from Washington about the rabbi at his shul. The rabbi was known throughout his years as a gruff and unforgiving presence in the pulpit. He was famous for interrupting his sermons to ask parents to remove fussy children from the sanctuary, and it was a cold day in August if a child ascended the bimah. And then one day, his two-year-old grandson, visiting from another city, broke away from the rabbi's wife and went running down the aisle and up to his grandfather in the pulpit, yelling "Zaide" at the top of his lungs. The congregation held its breath, only to see precedent of forty years collapse in an instant.

That's what five minutes with the Agudas Achim Performing Arts Pre- school will do to you.

And so, you whose hearts yearn for Torah, who come to learn and to discuss and to seek wisdom and inspiration, who deliberate the future of Torah commentary and fiscal planning, who have given love and who have love to give, what shall you do?

You shall make the crowning jewel on the head of this congregation our commitment to making sure this world continues our brand- spanking-new pre-school.


Home | Profile | Works | Links

Comments or Questions? Email tleach@leaches.net