“For it is a law for Israel.” (81:5)
What makes us Israel is a shared sense of law, of obligation. We are Israel when we clean our homes and celebrate Passover. We are Israel when we are conscious of the contents of the food which we put into our bodies. We are Israel when we rest from creative acts on Shabbat. We are Israel when we join a Jewish community for prayer. We are Israel when we celebrate a boy’s birth with circumcision, celebrate puberty with bar or bat mitzvah, celebrate marriage with a huppah, and commemorate a death with Shiva.
“… to cut off their memory from the earth. (34:17)
When I get to the end of my life, I’d like to have made a difference. I know it’s not reasonable to think that 50 years after my death that I will be remembered as anything other than a name, and after another 50 years, probably not even that, so my goal is more modest. I’d like to be remembered for something for a generation or two. Having children is one way to guarantee that your memory will not be immediately cut off. Having the means to leave a financial legacy such as a named endowment fund or family foundation is another way. If it is within your power, how to you want to be remembered?
“A groom going forth from the chamber …” (19:6)
Each human soul is a world unto itself, created in the image of God. When two such souls meet under the huppah at the wedding ceremony, there is an infinity of potential. We don’t know what this couple is going to do together, how they will motivate each other to reach their highest potential, if or how they will raise children and what gifts the children will bring to the world. The undeveloped energy is the groom, the sun, going forth from its chamber on its way to bring amazing light into the world.
For Adonai takes pleasure in God’s people (149:4)
The Yiddish word for this kind of pleasure is Nahas, coming from the Hebrew Nahat. Although this is not the Hebrew word used in the Psalm, it reminds me of the Yiddish expression, sheppen nahas fun kinder, deriving pleasure from the mere existence of children. Of course, if the children misbehave, refuse to leave the nest and get a job, or get arrested, we’re no longer sheppen nahas! But when they bring home artwork that only a mother could love, work their hardest and struggle to meet expectations, or celebrate Bar/Bat Mitzvah or graduations, the accomplishment itself is a delight.
I imagine that God takes pleasure when we try. We make mistakes and don’t always succeed and often need help. But as long as we put forth the effort, learning and growing over the course of our lives, God is proud of us because we are God’s children. A midrash imagines the questions God will ask us at the entrance to the world to come. I understand the questions as “Have you fulfilled your personal potential, have you been the best version of you, have you done the things in this world that you alone were created to do?”
We will fall short. We will leave things undone. But Pirke Avot (2:16) teaches that we don’t need to finish the work, we only need to make our contribution.
“[Rabbi Tarfon] would say, “It’s not your job to finish the work, but you’re not free to walk away from it.”
He sets the childless woman among her household as a happy mother of children. (113:9)
On Rosh Hodesh (the new month), Festivals, and Hanukkah, the prayer service is supplemented by a set of six Psalms known as Hallel, beginning with Psalm 113 and continuing through Psalm 118. The Psalmist speaks of celebration and thankfulness, particularly the joy that comes from emerging from a period of suffering or stress. By no means will every childless couple seeking to conceive find their prayers answers, nor will every needy person be lifted out of crisis. Those who find themselves in a financial hole, through hard work and a good attitude and a willingness to make sacrifices, will very likely find themselves in a more secure place. However, no amount of good spirits and sacrifice will necessarily help the couple suffering infertility who cannot afford the expense of medical intervention or adoption. Nonetheless, the Psalmist believes that it is still possible for such a couple to find happiness. Of those whose hearts ache with the lost opportunity to raise a child in their home, some will find that happiness with nieces and nephews. Some will be teachers. Some will serve the community by leading youth services or coordinating youth group activities.
Jewish tradition says that one who teaches and guides a child towards responsible maturity is a parent to that child. This is not meant to be a facile response to those mourning infertility, nor should our verse be read as a promise that if you have enough faith, God will miraculously wave away your inability to conceive. For some, childlessness is a medical condition that no amount of prayer can cure. However, I hope that our Jewish community treats such people with sensitivity and compassion and our Psalmist has faith that such couples can eventually find their way to happiness.