Rabbi Irving Lehrman tells a wonderful story from
his own childhood. A little boy walks into an office building and sees a clock
too high on the wall for anyone to reach. To adjust the time, workmen must climb
a tall ladder. The boy asks his father, "Why is the clock set so high, where
nobody can reach it?" "It's simple," answers the father. "The clock used to be
lower, within reach of everybody. People would pass by, look at their watch, and
adjust the clock to match their watch. When they moved the clock higher, people
would look at it and adjust their watches accordingly."
The meaning of the metaphor is clear. We need an
ideal, a vision, a clock high on the wall that we can refer to. Certainly not
every individual nor every family will live their lives according to that ideal.
But without some recognized standard, everybody will simply do "what is right in
their own eyes." (Judges 21:25 )
Family is a spiritual entity. The meaning of family
goes beyond the biological and material to touch the spiritual dimension of
life. This paper will view family as a spiritual ideal. This ideal includes a
man and a woman committed to one another through the covenant of marriage,
raising the children they sire or adopt, honoring their parents, being the
keepers of their brothers and sisters, and expressing their love through their
devotion and service to one another. It is an ideal that grew out of the Bible,
and is central to the vision of family articulated by those religious traditions
based on the Bible: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
One of the key messages of the creation story in
Genesis is that we human beings are qualitatively different from animals. We are
created in the image of God, with the ability to make moral choices. We are
commanded to be holy (Leviticus 19:2), holiness being those actions which help
raise us above animal behavior and towards the Godliness within us.
Let us begin our exploration by comparing the
animal world and the human world. In the realm of family life, we clearly see
the difference between animals and humans. We may use the same words - mother,
father, sister, brother, son, daughter - but they take on an entirely different
meaning in the animal kingdom and the world of humans.
Animals have parents. They received half of their
genetic material from a male who served as sperm donor, and half from a female
who gave the egg. An animal grew inside its mother, and if it is a mammal, it
nursed at her nipple. Within the animal kingdom, after a relatively brief period
of time, the parents are finished with their tasks.
Humans also have a birth mother and father. But
that is a biological fact which has little to do with parenting. After we are
born and after we are weaned, our parents' tasks are just beginning.
Animals have siblings. They may share genetic
material, or even grow in the same womb with other animals. But the relationship
stops there. No animal would ever ask the question, "Am I my brother's
Animals procreate children. Male animals join
sexually with female animals to create a new generation. For animals, this is
totally a biological act, with no larger moral or spiritual purpose. In fact,
most animals have sexual encounters only when in heat, when there is a
probability of procreation. A male leaves his sperm in a female and moves on to
In the animal kingdom, following birth and a short
period of nursing and nurturing, children are set loose to survive on their own.
There is no expectation of any ongoing relationship between the biological
parents and their offspring. In the real world, it is unlikely that adult
animals even recognize their progenitors.
Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the difference
between animals and humans is to speak of two metaphors, the cycle and the
chain. Animals live in the world of the cycle. The human quest is to break out
of the cycle, to see life as a chain.
To demonstrate the world of the cycle, let us look
at the beautiful Disney movie The Lion King. The movie begins with Elton
John singing the theme song of this movie, The Circle of Life. A baby
lion is born and held high for all the animals to see. The song tells of a great
cycle, with events repeated over and over as each new generation comes. At the
end of the movie, a new generation of lions is born, and the same scene is
repeated once again.
To the animal world, life is a cycle. Each
generation repeats what was done before. The life of a lion or a kangaroo or a
parakeet is almost precisely the same as the life of these animals one
generation ago. If we went back ten thousand generations and looked at the way a
lion lives, it would be more or less the same as today.
It was the power of this cycle that Disney caught
so beautifully in the movie. Birth, weaning, adulthood, procreation, death, the
cycle continues unchanging from generation to generation.
There is a book in the Bible which also speaks of
life as an endless, unchanging circle. The book of Ecclesiastes, traditionally
attributed to King Solomon and perhaps the most cynical book in the entire
Bible, laments the vanity and meaninglessness of life.
"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What real
value is there for man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun? One
generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same
All streams flow into the sea, Yet the sea is
never full; To the place from which they flow the streams flow back
again...Only that shall happen which has happened, Only that occur which has
occurred; There is nothing new beneath the sun."
One senses Solomon's depression and futility. Is
life but an endless cycle, with nothing new to show for it? Are we forced to
relive the fate of our parents and grandparents over and over? If we are mere
animals, forced to relive the same thing over and over, how can there be any
ultimate purpose to life? The cycle as a metaphor may work for animals, but not
for human beings.
Thomas Cahill, in his best selling book The
Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks
and Feels, wrote that the ancient Israelites gave the world a new metaphor.
To quote Cahill, "All evidence points to there having been, in the earliest
religious thought, a vision of the cosmos that was profoundly cyclical. The Jews
were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking
and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world."
The ancient pagan world, like the animal world, saw
life as an endless repetitive cycle. The gift of the Bible was the vision that
we humans can rise above that cycle, that we are more than mere animals. The
Bible introduces a new metaphor, one with a beginning and an end. It is best
represented by a chain, with each generation a new link. That is why the Bible
is so concerned with who begat whom.
Each generation builds and adds to the previous
link. Previous generations contain a repository of wisdom and knowledge on which
a new generation can build. Each new generation stands on the shoulders of their
parents and grandparents. Each new generation sees itself as closer to the
perfect Messianic age still to come.
Humans experience a link between generations, an
appreciation of the past and a vision of the future, which animals can never
know. To be part of a chain, part of some greater purpose, gives human life its
spiritual quality. It is family that creates that chain.
Let us explore the family as a spiritual entity. To
do so, we must travel back to the dawn of creation, to that mystical place
called the Garden of Eden.
Family life began when God created man, placed him
in the garden, and declared "it is not good for man to be alone. I will make him
a fitting helper." (Genesis 2:18) God brought each animal to the man, but none
was an appropriate helper nor a proper fit. The word family does not apply to
the animal kingdom.
Only then did God cause a deep sleep to fall on the
man and remove his rib. (Jewish mystics would say that the primordial man was
originally androgynous, both male and female, and God split him/her in half) God
created the woman from the rib and declared one of the most important verses in
the Torah, "Therefore a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave onto
his wife and they shall be one flesh." (Genesis 2:24) No other male in the
entire animal kingdom is given that responsibility.
We should note that the Torah does not say "a man
should leave his mother and father for a series of sexual conquests and one
night stands." Sexual discipline stands at the center of the Torah's vision of
family life. A human male is not to scatter his seed wherever he wishes,
although it would be in his genetic self-interest to do so.
Nor does the Torah say "a man shall leave his
mother and father and cleave to his wives." Polygamy may have been permitted in
Biblical times, but it is scarcely the ideal. In fact, one can argue that the
Biblical stories of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, or Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, are
polemics against polygamy. It is noteworthy that all of the great Biblical
religions have long outlawed polygamy.
Nor does the Torah countenance serial monogamy, one
wife after another. The book of Deuteronomy, recognizing the reality of human
weakness, does permit divorce. (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4) But it is considered a
sad, last resort, far from the ideal. In fact, the Prophet Malachi wrote, "You
cover the alter of God with tears, weeping and moaning ... Because the Lord is
witness between you and the wife of your youth with whom you have broken faith,
though she is your partner and covenanted spouse." Malachi 2:13-14) Based on
this verse, the rabbis taught that when a man divorces the wife of his youth,
even the alter of God cries tears. (Gittin 90b)
Lifelong marriage between one man and one woman is
the ideal articulated by the Garden of Eden story. Jewish tradition uses the
term kiddushin, literally holiness, to describe such a marriage. It is marriage,
the commitment of a man and a woman to a lifelong exclusive sexual relationship
that helps us rise above the animal kingdom.
All of the legal traditions that grew out of the
Bible - Jewish halakhah, Church canon law, Moslem Shari'ah - are concerned with
the legal niceties of marriage: Who may marry whom? How is a marriage effected?
What are the legal obligations of spouses towards one another? May a marriage be
All agree that marriage is more than a mere legal
contract. The Bible often compares the relationship of husband and wife to the
relationship between God and Israel. Perhaps the best word is brit - covenant.
The word covenant implies something eternal and unbroken. In fact, in Mormon
theology the highest degree of salvation comes through eternal marriage or
sealing, a dispensation that carried the marital state beyond this lifetime.
According to the Biblical ideal, marriage has two
purposes. The first is companionship, for "it is not good for man to be alone."
(Genesis 2:18) The second is in order to fulfill God's commandment to "Be
fruitful and multiply." (Genesis 1:28)
Judaism understands the commandment of procreation
as applying to men, although obviously a man needs a woman partner to fulfill
his obligation. There is much speculation in Jewish sources why this commandment
was given to men only. Perhaps women do not need an explicit commandment; they
have a natural, maternal urge. Men on the other hand are too often happy to
avoid the obligations of fatherhood, particularly when children demand a huge
financial commitment. This is one reason that abortion is often a boon to men,
who are happy to tell the woman to "take care of the problem."
Jewish law teaches that minimally, a man must have
one boy and one girl to fulfill the commandment of procreation. However, the
Talmud continues that these children must be capable of having their own
children. In other words, in order to completely fulfill the commandment, a man
must have grandchildren. As the Talmud teaches, "a man's love is towards his
son, the son's love is towards his own son." (Sota 49a) The major concern is the
chain of generations.
This ideal of marriage and procreation raises a
deep question: Why are human males asked to do what no other animal must do,
forsake sexual conquests to cleave onto one wife? To answer this question, we
must delve even deeper into the creation of both humans and animals.
The Torah uses the Hebrew word yitzer - literally
"formed", for the creation of both humans and animals. "The Lord God formed
(yitzer) the man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the
breath of life, and man became a living soul." (Genesis 2:7) "The Lord God
formed (yitzer) out of the ground every beast of the field, and every fowl of
the air." (Genesis 2:19)
There is a slight difference in the spelling of the
word - the Hebrew letter yud is used only once for the creation of animals,
twice for the creation of humans. In this one tiny letter is the key to the
Torah's message about family. The term yetzer from the same root as yitzer has a
double meaning in Hebrew. It means formed, but it also means inner drive.
Both animals and humans have a yetzer, an inner
drive which underlies and defines their behavior. The rabbis noted that the
slight difference in spelling is because animals have only one yetzer or inner
drive, humans beings have two yetzers or inner drives. (Berachot 61a)
Animals survive through natural, instinctual
behavior. They follow patterns of behavior that have been hard wired into their
brains from birth. Certainly animals may be capable of some learning, but
animals do not make moral choices. When a coyote attacks a farmer's sheep, he is
simply doing what coyotes are hard-wired to do. One would not say that such a
coyote is doing wrong.
Whether it is a salmon swimming upstream to its
spawning ground, a dog in heat copulating with another dog, or a lion attacking
its prey, animals are following instinct. Even the ox that continually gores in
Exodus is simply following inbred behavior, the ox's owner is liable for
damages. One would not call the ox a sinner. Or as I often say in my sermons,
"Horses don't need Yom Kippur."
Humans are fundamentally different. We are born
with a minimum number of instinctual behaviors, sucking, crying, and a few
others necessary to survive our youngest years. Mostly we are a blank slate
ready to be molded. (Avot 4:25) As the Bible hints, we humans have two yetzers,
two inner drives, that struggle with one another and define us throughout our
lives. The rabbis called these the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, and the
yetzer hatov, the good inclination.
The yetzer hara consists of those primitive drives
within us which seek immediate gratification. They are what Freud defined as the
id. The yetzer hara is the sexual drive, the drive for violence, the drive for
acquisition, the emotion of anger, all out of control. The evil inclination is
that part of us which says, "I want what I want and I want it now!"
The rabbis recognized the importance of the yetzer
hara. They said without it no man would build a house or marry a wife. According
to a famous rabbinic legend, the rabbis once captured the yetzer hara and hid it
in a barrel. (Yoma 69a) For three days nothing happened, no one went to work,
even the chickens stopped laying eggs. The rabbis had to let it go. The key is
not to destroy the yetzer hara, but control it and sublimate it for good. Ben
Zoma taught, "Who is strong? Whoever controls their evil inclination." (Avot
The yetzer hatov or good inclination is the drive
to be altruistic. It is the part of us willing to delay gratification, practice
self-control, share with others, sacrifice for a greater good, and do the right
thing. For humans, life is a constant struggle between these two inclinations,
between "I want what I want and I want it now" and "do the right thing." We see
this struggle when we decide whether or not to indulge in a forbidden sexual
encounter, whether to spend or save money, whether to act out on our anger, even
whether or not to eat the ice cream when we are trying to diet.
The rabbis have another profound insight about this
struggle between our two yetzers. The yetzer hara, or evil inclination, is
present at full force from the moment of birth. Babies cry until their needs are
met, and they do not care whom they disturb. Children seek immediate
gratification. Children can be selfish and sometimes cruel. William Golding's
novel The Lord of the Flies is a classic example of children out of
control, untempered by adult authority.
The yetzer hatov, or good inclination, is only
present in potential at birth. It needs to be carefully nurtured and developed,
and only enters at full force at the moment of adulthood. (Ecclesiastes Rabbah
4:13) From this deep human insight, we begin to understand why the Torah asks a
man to stay around, to commit to the woman he chooses and the children he sires
through her. His presence is necessary for the key activity which a child needs,
the activity that defines the very word parent, developing the yetzer hatov.
Here is where humans differ substantially from the
animal kingdom. Someone must take primary responsibility for developing the good
inclination and showing control over the evil inclination. The Bible places that
obligation clearly upon fathers.
The Torah wants men around to assume an essential
role in raising their young, developing the sense of right and wrong and the
self-discipline to do the right thing. That is why, according to Jewish law, it
is the father's duty to teach his children Torah (Kiddushin 29a), defining the
word Torah in the broadest sense teaching.
Why is this a particular obligation for fathers?
Certainly mothers also have a role in developing a conscience and self control
in children. There are many single mothers who are forced by circumstances to
bear the entire burden of teaching right from wrong, developing the yetzer
hatov. They do so because the men who impregnated them has abandoned their
parental responsibilities. Or some chose to do it alone, following the example
set in Hollywood by the fictional television character Murphy Brown, or such
real life celebrities as pop singer Madonna and actress Jodie Foster.
The Torah places the ultimate responsibility for
developing the yetzer hatov on the man for reasons related to the essential
nature of men and women. Scholars such as Deborah Tannen and Carol Gilligan are
beginning to recognize that, in certain fundamental ways, men and women are
different. Women by their very nature are primarily concerned with
relationships. They are nurturers. Men by their very nature are primarily
concerned with accomplishments. They are far more competitive. These different
primary concerns manifest themselves in parenting roles.
To paraphrase a wonderful distinction made by
columnist Don Feder, "Mothers are concerned with survival, fathers are concerned
with success." The Torah recognizes that fathering is different from mothering.
Children need two types of parenting if they are to grow up to be successful,
competent adults. They need the self-esteem and confidence that a loving,
nurturing mother can provide, one who will always accept her child
unconditionally. And they need the survival skills, self-discipline, and moral
values that a strong father can provide, one who makes demands and sometimes
Rabbi Daniel Lapin, founder of "Towards Tradition,"
has a brilliant insight from the Hebrew which makes this same point. There is a
Hebrew word for mother and for father, but no Hebrew for the generic parent. One
cannot even say single parent in Hebrew. One can only say parents, horim, from
the same root as to teach. This simple Hebrew insight seems to indicate that it
takes two to parent, each with slightly different roles.
I do not want to oversimplify the role of mothers
and fathers in nurturing and teaching right from wrong. As a male, I am involved
in nurturing my children, and my wife is certainly involved in teaching and
disciplining them. True parenting is a partnership. However, as with all good
partnerships, there seem to be primary roles. The primary role of a father is to
lay down the rules and teach the self-discipline necessary for a successful
It is important to note that one does not need to
be a biological father to perform the key role of fatherhood. Adoptive fathers
can do the job as well as birth fathers. Often step-fathers, grandfathers, and
other key males in the life of the child assume this mentoring role. Other men
from the community - teachers, coaches, religious youth leaders, scoutmasters -
can become the mentors for children without a father. The Torah wants a male
presence in the life of a child.
Social critic Barbara Dafoe Whitehead has
brilliantly demonstrated in her article "Dan Quayle was Right" that when a
father is absent or uninvolved, too many children grow up undisciplined and out
of control. Their yetzer hara has never been brought under control. As many
social scientists have pointed out, children growing up without fathers are the
basis of many of our worst social problems, from gangs to crime to teenage
pregnancy. All of this proves that the family is a uniquely human
Animals manage without families; their genetic
survival seems to work out fine. Humans need more than genetic survival, we need
to learn to control our yetzer hara and develop our yetzer hatov. Fathers are
essential for this to succeed. When fathers step back from this primary task, we
humans seem to be acting more animal like.
Parents raise their children with the prayer that
ultimately they will leave home, seek their own spouse, and have their own
children. They will add a new link to the chain. In fact, it is important to note
the language of the Bible, "a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave
unto his wife." He must leave before he can cleave. However, even as they leave
home and enter adulthood, humans must do something no other animal is obligated
to do. They must honor the father and mother who raised them. (Note that the
honor is to the parents who raised them, not necessarily the ones who gave birth
to them. Again we are speaking of a value beyond biology.)
In Jewish tradition, this honor takes on two
separate obligations. (Kiddushin 31b.) First, a man or woman must be sure that
parents are properly fed and cared for, particularly in old age. Humans have a
value, even after they have completed the tasks of siring and raising children.
Second, a man and woman must respect the dignity and standing of a parent, and
do nothing to detract from that role. This commandment applies even if one's
parents did a poor job. The contemporary notion that parents must earn their
children's respect has no place in Biblical tradition.
An important aspect of honoring parents is the
child's relationship with his or her siblings. The book of Proverbs teaches: "A
friend is devoted at all times, but a brother is born for adversity." (Proverbs
17:17) With the help of the Ralbag, one of the classical Biblical commentators,
we can understand what the passage really means. A friend is there for good
times. He or she may go out socially with us, party with us; we may enjoy each
other's company. But when difficult times hit, a person turns to his or her
brother or sister. Because they are flesh and bone, they have a mutual
obligation to one another.
When Cain asked the rhetorical question "Am I my
brother's keeper?" the answer was yes. By caring for our siblings, we ultimately
are honoring our parents. This idea can be expanded beyond our immediate family
- by caring for all humanity, we ultimately honor the father of us all. "Have we
not one father, did not one God create us all?" (Malachi 2:10)
Human beings live in a web of relationships.
According to the Biblical ideal, a man and a woman must commit to one another in
the holy covenant we call marriage. Together they must care for, provide for,
and serve the needs of their spouse, ensuring that the marriage will succeed.
They must nurture and mentor children, teaching them the values and
self-discipline to succeed as adults. When the children grow up and leave home,
they must honor parents and be the keeper of siblings. They must see themselves
not as autonomous individuals but as links in the chain of generations. It is in
this web of fundamental human relationships that we humans rise above the animal
kingdom and ultimately find spiritual meaning.
Love begins with service to those in our own
family. And in love do we ultimately see the face of God.