Thursday, October 15, 2015

What young Jews in the USA & UK can learn from fertile Israelis.

After Noah leaves the Ark we see a strange sequence of events. First he offers sacrifices to G-d. G-d, pleased by the scent, in turn commands him to repopulate the world. G-d continues the conversation and enters a covenant with Noah and his descendants never to flood humanity again. Then Noah plants a vineyard.

“G-d blesses Noah and his children and said to them: Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth[1]”.
God continues and “says to Noah and his sons with him: I myself am making a covenant with you and with your offspring after you….all life will never be cut short by the waters of a flood. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth”.
A few verses later Noah is found working the land: “Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard…” He gets drunk, Cham gets into trouble and the world continues.
Two sages in the midrash[2] have very differing sentiments toward the great Noah. One is positive and complimentary, the other negative and disconcerted. Both of which have great implications for the times we live in, and the challenges facing young Jews.

Rebbi Yehudah is mortified, Noah was commanded peru urevu, be fruitful and multiply, and his insecurities and anxieties prevent him from obeying G-d’s wishes and repopulating a world that may again be destroyed by flood.

G-d calms his fears: never again will I bring a flood. Do not worry.

Rebbi Nachman disagrees. He added to the command and the holy mission, Noah abstained from the act of multiplying and instead busied himself with the important matters of yishuv haolam, preparing a better and settled world. So he, and his children too, were rewarded, with an additional revelation and covenant from G-d himself.

The same story; very different reactions.

Should one be busy working the land and preparing an environment for future generations, like R’ Nachman suggests? If yes, why is R’ Yehudah critical?
Or should we be busying ourselves with the command be fruitful and multiply?

The 2013 Pew research Portrait of Jewish Americans, revealed that: “For all of (Jewish) child-centeredness, many Jews seem either unable to find partners with whom to have children or are not all that interested in having children in the first place… Fertility level of about 1.7 children for non-orthodox Jews, well below the replacement level of 2.1 children[3]”.

The UK is not doing much better[4]: 2.31 is the average number of people per (non-charedi) Jewish household. With the UK average[5] 1.7 children per family. This (birthrate) is in line with the UK’s general long-term fertility trends which, even though birth rates have been steadily increasing over the last decade, are still below ‘replacement level’ (around 2.1 children per female)[6].

Contrast that with fertile Israel where demographer Sergio DellaPergola[7] found that women bear 3 children each on average. This is the main drive for population growth, well above western standards.

Are young people too consumed with their careers and not having enough babies? Or, worse, not getting married at all?
Harvard Business Review[8] published research suggesting that for many women, the brutal demands of ambitious careers, the asymmetries of male-female relationships, and the difficulties of bearing children later in life conspire to crowd out the possibility of having children. Young men also find it difficult to juggle demanding jobs with making time to date.

So we can have it both ways.

R’ Nachman is teaching us: yes, work the land, earn a living and prepare for future generations, it is a mitzvah, indeed, one that is worthy of a G-dly revelation. So long as it remains just that, a means to such an end.

However, if it becomes all-consuming, supporting and enabling our insecurities and anxieties of a flooding world, where we always ask: is it enough? Can I swim through it? Will we afford it? Then as R' Yehudah contests, it has gone too far.

Kene hora, at The Saatchi Synagogue we continue to repopulate, with many weddings and babies, may it continue, with G-d's blessing.

We must remember the ultimate source of our sustenance and blessing comes from G-d. When a son or daughter is born, along with the child their livelihood is born[9]. Each child that we bring in to this world in blessing for his or her family and the entire Jewish people.

[1] Genesis, 9,1-20
[2] Midrash Rabba, Noach 35, 1, and Eitz Yosef commentary
[9] The Lubavitcher Rebbe

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