>“Coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys.” These are the words of the author Emma Bull, and I am really keen on this idea. As a person of faith I agree with Albert Einstein that coincidence is Gods way of remaining anonymous. We may see the connection of events as accidental, but really there is something behind the apparent random occurrences. I am not sure if it was God or the editors of various news media, but Monday threw up a wonderful coincidence, which was just too good to ignore.
Those of us who were watching, or listening, to the news on Monday could not have missed the lead story across the networks, as cuts to child benefit became the day’s major headline. On the second day of the Conservative Party conference, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced that families with one parent who is a high rate tax payer, would no longer receive child benefit. The press grew very animated as they reported and discussed the rights and wrongs of this new policy. I am not about to offer a political perspective, I was just fascinated by the story which followed, and as I’ve been married for less than 2 years, there is time before I need to offer my personal opinion.
On the same day, the second item on most news broadcasts involved Professor Robert Edwards and his receipt of the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Professor Edwards was honoured for his work researching and developing IVF treatment to help people who have struggled with fertility to have a child. According to the reports there are over four million people in the world today, born as a result of his pioneering work and the successes achieved by Professor Robert Edwards.
If this was not coincidence enough, our Torah reading today began with the verse: “And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them “Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.”’ This command was first given to the animals, then to Adam and Eve, and now it is shared with Noah and his family. The creator of In Vitro Fertilisation, who has helped millions to be fruitful and multiply, has been honoured as we read about this command in the Torah, while raising those children has become more expensive for some. A coincidence indeed!
In the Torah, at no place when we are told to be fruitful and multiply are we told what to do with the children once we have given birth to them. In the context of the story of Noah it seems that simply having lots of children will fulfil the obligation – the earth will be replenished. We may have hoped for more guidance about what to do once a baby is born. What are our responsibilities once we have children? How should we raise our children? And what responsibilities do we have to other people’s children?
In the Talmud, which unfortunately only concerns itself with the man and his son, we are told: ‘Our Rabbis taught: The father is obligated in respect of his son, to circumcise him, to redeem him (if he is a firstborn), to teach him Torah, to take a wife for him, and to teach him a craft. Some add to this list that he must teach him to swim too.’ The list is indicative of the Rabbinic understanding of what a child requires from their parents, and about how they must be raised.
It is first of all clear that a religious identity is crucial, and while the text only mentions circumcision, one can assume that this is symbolic of parents sharing their religious heritage with their children. The next parental responsibility is education, specifically in this context the education of Torah. I like to think that the Torah provides us with a moral and ethical code by which we should live our lives, and so in this way, the Rabbinic instruction is about raising children to be responsible, positive, valuable members of society.
Having raised a good Jewish boy, it is then in Jewish parents eyes, or dare I say Jewish mothers eyes, the time to find him a partner, a Jewish partner of course. And according to the Talmud it is clear that this is the parents responsibility as well. I am not sure how keen children are on their parents acting as match maker, but it is almost inbuilt into our Jewish DNA, we try to match-make the whole time, be it for family members, friends, or even people we hardly know. As a community we take this responsibility very seriously – in our modern context, I wonder how many parents pay for their children’s J-Date registration, so that they can surf the internet looking for a Jewish partner.
The education does not stop there, and the child must be taught a craft, or a trade, so that in turn they can become self-sufficient and ultimately financially independent of their parents. All of these obligations would appear to be very logical and important for helping children to grow up. And then the text adds an additional opinion, which supplements the list with the need to teach a child to swim. Maybe this is about giving children the tools to protect themselves from potentially dangerous situations. Or maybe it reminds us that we must also have fun with our children, and not everything needs to be serious with a specific purpose.
But what if there are no parents to fulfil these obligations? At this point according to the Talmud the responsibility falls upon the entire community. When there are no parents we all share a responsibility in raising the children, and I would suggest even when there are parents we still share that responsibility as members of the same community and society.
Whatever a person might think about the rights or wrongs of the recently announced policy, which will cut child benefit; the existence of child benefit makes a statement about society and the way we relate to other people’s children. Child benefit is a statement by the government that we are all invested in the raising of children. We all have a responsibility to contribute to help families raise their children. And one can assume that ultimately we, society, will all benefit from raising the next generation in an appropriate way.
The famous African quote suggests that it takes a village to raise a child.
Child benefit is one way that the village can help to raise a child, but I would suggest we need to be much more hands on in helping each other to raise the next generation. Our society has become individualised and privatised in almost every sphere, and parenting is no exception. While I am not denying that parents bear the primary responsibility for raising their own children, each one of us also has a responsibility and obligation. As a community we have a responsibility not just for our own children, but for the children of this community.
Eleven hours after Moses Goodrich was born in January 2009, his mother died. His grieving father Robbie did not know how he would raise his son, and he was especially concerned that he would be unable to fulfil his wife’s wish of having her son breastfed. He ordered $500 of frozen breast milk as he prepared to care for his newborn son. The next day a friend called and offered to breastfeed Moses, within weeks there were 25 women who had taken responsibility for raising and feeding Moses. He did not have a mother to raise him, but he had a community.
People come together in times of need to help with the responsibilities of raising children. We need to come together at all times to help each other to be the most accomplished parents we can be, and to raise children who are caring, educated, know right from wrong, and who will, themselves, make a contribution to community and to society.
One way that we, as a community, already do this is by investing in our Religion School to provide our children with a good Jewish education. The Synagogue has prioritised our children’s education and has invested to make sure that they are taught Torah by wonderful teachers in a great environment.
But Torah education is just one of the responsibilities the Talmud lays out for parents and their children. We also need to provide them with a connection to their religious heritage – we need to bring them into the synagogue and encourage them to be a part of our prayer community. We have reintroduced the monthly Birthday Kiddush to celebrate the children, but we actually need to welcome them every week. Occasionally this might mean accepting a little bit of noise from our youngest children, but this seems like a small price to pay for fulfilling our religious responsibility towards them.
In this week’s Torah portion we are told to be fruitful and multiply. The important work of Professor Robert Edwards, which was honoured this week, helped to make this a possibility for millions of people. And in the same week the financial support for raising children was reduced. We need to fill that financial gap with our hard work, our involvement and our action. We all share the responsibility of raising our children – we don’t have villages to raise a child, but we have synagogues, and in this community we don’t need to just bless our children with our words, we can also bless them with our actions. And the impact of our actions will be heard further and louder than our words ever could be.