Our Spiritual Children

Dear Friends,
It is written concerning the Torah, "She is a tree of life" (Proverbs 3:18). In fact, the first mitzvah - Divine mandate - which is recorded in the Torah is the mitzvah to increase life: "Be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28). This mitzvah also enables us to transmit the life-giving teachings of Torah to future generations. Given the importance of this mitzvah, men and women who have life-challenges which prevent them from fulfilling this mitzvah 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 who are unable to have 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. Indeed, God created the world for people to reproduce. 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." (56:4,5)
People 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." Our sages find an allusion to this idea in the following passage from the Book of Genesis:
"These are the offspring of Noah: Noah was a righteous man, whole in his generations; Noah walked with the Just One. Noah had begotten three sons - Shem, Ham, and Jafeth." (Genesis 6:9,10).
The above passage begins to introduce the offspring of Noah; however, before it mentions the names of his children, it tells us that he was righteous! The classical commentator, Rashi, explains that this comes to teach us the following truth: "The main offspring of the righteous are good deeds"!
Rashi's statement is based on the following commentary from the Midrash Rabbah on this passage: "What are the fruits of the righteous person? Mitzvos and good deeds!" A similar commentary is found in the Midrash Tanchuma, which teaches:

Rabbi Judah 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 establish fruits in this world? You have established fruits which are nicer than children!" The person then asks: "Master of the Universe, what fruits have I established?" And the Holy One, Blessed Be He, answers that he established 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" (The Wisdom of Mishle, page 69). Each human being on earth can therefore become a fruitful tree of life.
The above teachings may not fully comfort the barren ones among the People of Israel who yearn to have children so that they can contribute to the continuity of our people and our spiritual heritage. Our tradition teaches, however, that we can achieve this goal by giving birth in another ways. 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:
"These are the offspring of Aaron and Moses on the day the Compassionate One spoke with Moses at Mount Sinai: These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the firstborn Nadab, Abihu, Elazar, and Ithamar." (Numbers 3:1,2) 
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 Torah to the sons of Aaron, 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, someone told me about 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). 
There are other ways to help connect people to Torah and thereby contribute to the continuity of our people. For example, one can invite people in one's neighborhood to a Shabbos or Festival meal, where they can be introduced to the unifying and joyous atmosphere of these holy days. When I lived in Manhattan, I would often invite unaffiliated, searching Jews in my neighborhood 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. After 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 couple of Shabbos meals at your apartment 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.

Each of us can find ways to help people connect to Torah; moreover, each person on this list has some Torah knowledge which can be shared with others. May the Compassionate One therefore help all of us to increase life by becoming spiritual parents.
Much Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)
Related Teachings:
1. Teaching Torah to others is not an "option" to be considered; it is a mitzvah which is found in the following verse from the first paragraph of the "Shema" - the proclamation of the Divine unity - 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" are one's 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).
2. One of the ways to strengthen the continuity of our people is to contribute to Torah schools, yeshivos, and outreach programs or seminars. One can also recommend an appropriate school, yeshiva, program or seminar to a searching friend, neighbor, or co-worker. Most important, those of us on the Torah path should strive to be a living example of Torah teachings so that we can inspire others to follow our example.
3. A person who is unable to have physical children may have more energy and resources to devote to mitzvos and good deeds - his "main offspring"! 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 (The Gate of Trust - Chapter 4). This discussion begins on page 419 in the English edition published by Feldheim: www.feldheim.com.

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