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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Shemot: Carrying the hope of our parents

The book of Shemot [Exodus] begins with a list of names; the names of the sons of Jacob. Indeed, that's why it's called the book of Shemot, which means, the book of names. But, as I've pointed out before, one of the most striking features of the next few verses, after the list of dead ancestors's names, is the ominous lack of names. In the space of a few verses, the Jewish people -- at least in the eyes of the Egyptians - go from being a small tribe of 70 families, into a "swarming" mass of humanity -- but there are no names (Exodus 1:7).

And the Israelites were fertile and swarmed; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.

As the Egyptians look on in fearful wonder, they are struck by Jewish fertility. They fear that we might continue to grow and grow (Exodus 1:9-10), until we become a dangerous fifth column in their midst.

A swarming mass of humanity

The Egyptians fear the Jews, "lest they increase" (in Hebrew: pen yirbeh, Exodus 1:10), and then their fears are realised, as the Jewish people, right on cue, "verily increased" (in Hebrew: ken yirbeh, Exodus 1:12).

The sage, Reish Lakish, suggests that something Divine is going on (since the phrase ken yirbeh should be in the past tense, but appears in the future tense): So long as the Egyptians worry that pen yirbeh, that the Jews will increase, God replies and says "yes, they will increase - ken yirbeh."

On this reading, the notion that there's something supernatural about the rate of Jewish growth isn't just a figment of the anti-Semitic imagination. Something supernatural is going on. Indeed, the Midrashic imagination has a field-day with this:

Each mother gave birth to six children in one litter, as it says: "And the children of Israel were (1) fertile and (2) spawned [they (3) multiplied and (4) increased, (5) very (6) greatly...]" (Exodus 1:7). Some say: Twelve [children in each litter] as it is written: "fertile [in the plural]" - two, "spawned [in the plural]" - two, "they multiplied" - two, "they increased" - two, "very greatly" - two, "and the land was filled with them" - two, for a total of twelve.

In the continuation of the Midrash, we're told not to be incredulous, "since the scorpion is one of the crawling creatures, and it gives birth to seventy at a time." -- So, if a scorpion can manage seventy, surely a human can manage twelve!

But the fact that the Midrash tells us not to be incredulous indicates that the Midrash knows that it's inviting incredulity to begin with. The Jewish demographic explosion was a miracle, and the more the Jews were oppressed, the more they increased in number.

But this leads me to a difficult question. Isn't there something unethical about having children at such a time? If you're living in slavery, and barely able to make ends meet, if the day to day life of a Jew is a relentless misery, isn't it an act of cruelty to bring another life into that world? We don't need to to adopt the extreme position of the philosopher, David Benatar, who thinks that it's always unethical to have children, to think that it sometimes is. Indeed, the Talmud itself teaches:

It is prohibited for a person to have conjugal relations in years of famine. As it is stated: “And to Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came” (Genesis 41:50). Nevertheless, it was taught that those without children are allowed to have marital relations in years of famine.

Even to have conjugal relations at such a time would be somehow distasteful, let alone to bring children into the world. Joseph, presumably, could have afforded to sustain a growing family, even during the famine, given his wealth, and his stock-pile of grain. Perhaps, for Joseph, it would have simply been unseemly to have more children when other people were struggling to make ends meet. But if Joseph -- who probably had the means -- was forbidden from bringing a child into the world, during years of famine; how much more so, should people without the means refrain from procreating in times of tremendous hardship?

Certainly, the childless should be a allowed to continue their efforts to procreate. After all, God has given us each a commandment to be fruitful and multiply. But even then, it seems proper to wait until the time is right, until a person has the necessary provisions, and financial security. Furthermore, once a person's Biblical duty has been fulfilled (which, according to the standard Rabbinic understanding, requires having a son and a daughter) we should abstain from further reproduction in "times of famine" (whatever, exactly, that's taken to mean).

Rabbi Mordechai Rottenburg

This opinion was painfully articulated by Rabbi Mordechai Rottgenburg during the Holocaust. He wrote a halakhic opinion on the 6th of December 1942. At that point, in addition to the extermination camps, and the roaming mass-killings of the Einsatzgruppe, there were still many Jews trying to continue to string together a semblance of family life in the Ghettos that remained.

He had been asked, by a young husband, whether it was appropriate to abstain from marital relations, at least during his wife's most fertile days of the month. This is sometimes known as the rhythm method of contraception. After all, his wife was, rightly, "terrified to become pregnant" knowing that a "pregnancy and childbirth at this painful time would pose a grave danger to her and to her [future] offspring."

In his heart wrenching response, written two years before his own murder, he feels unable to permit the rhythm method at this time, since the only people permitted to have relations at all in a "time of famine" are the childless. This would imply that intimacy for any other purpose would be forbidden. But then he goes further and argues that, at such times, even though a person has permission to procreate if they don't yet have children - they are under no obligation. Indeed, Joseph himself didn't have daughters.

Accordingly, on Rabbi Rottgenburg's understanding of the Talmudic discussion, Joseph actually had permission to continue to grow his family during the years of famine, until he had a daughter. But he didn't, because of his piety. So too, in his own days of horror, Rabbi Rottenburg accepted that a person with no children had an halakhic right to try for one, but that it would be somehow impious - halakhically permissible, but ethically dubious. And so, with delicacy, and hesitance, he counselled absolute abstinence.

In the same year, Rabbi Yitzchak Weiss had come to a very different conclusion. He was asked to find a leniency regarding the precise timing of a woman's ritual immersion given the imposition of a curfew for Jews in Slovakia. The deportation of Slovakian Jewry had just begun, and within six months, Rabbi Weiss and his addressee, Rabbi Friedman of Trnava, would be murdered. And yet, Rabbi Weiss wrote:

It would seem that there is an obligation to try very hard to permit [the proposed time of immersion] so that Israel will not be prevented from the duty of procreation.

A duty? Even in those horrific times? What about the prohibition on marital relations during a time of famine? What about the piety of Joseph? What about the suffering of the unborn, let alone the mother and the father?

Centuries earlier, the debate between Rabbi Rottenburg and Rabbi Weiss was rehearsed in a Midrash, found in the Talmud (and repeated in Shemot Raba 1:13):

Amram was the great man of his generation. Once he saw that the wicked Pharaoh said: “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river..." (Exodus 1:22), he said: We are laboring for nothing. He arose and divorced his wife. Everyone [else followed his example,] arose and divorced their wives.

In other words, Amram preempts the opinion of Rabbi Rottgenburg. But Miriam, his daughter, raises an objection against her father's ruling. The Midrash continues:

His daughter said to him: "Father, your decree is more harsh than that of Pharaoh, since Pharaoh decreed only with regard to the males, but your decree [stops the birth of both] males and females. Pharaoh decreed [to kill them] only in this world, but you [decreed to kill them] in this world and in the World-to-Come [since if you don't allow their birth, you prevent them living in both this world and the next].[Moreover," she continued,] "Pharaoh is wicked, and so it is uncertain whether his decree will be fulfilled or not. But you are a righteous person, your decrees will certainly be fulfilled, as it is stated with regard to the righteous: “You shall also decree a thing, and it shall be established unto you” (Job 22:28)." [Amram accepted his daughter’s words and] arose and brought back his wife, and everyone arose and brought back their wives.

It seems as if Miriam preempts the opinion of Rabbi Weiss. There is no excuse to stop procreating, even in our Egyptian house of bondage.

But what about the suffering of the children? What about the precedent set by Joseph, not to have children in times of famine? The kernel of an answer to these questions can be found in Miriam's words.

Irish Great Famine Memorial, Dublin

A famine will pass. Accordingly, during a time of famine, it would be pious -- even for the childless -- to wait. But the oppression of the Jews in Egypt would last for two hundred and ten years. Nobody could wait that long. The Jewish people would die out.

Moreover, a famine doesn't have intentions; it's just a brute and blind, natural disaster. A famine can't be racist. A famine can't be anti-Semitic. But Pharaoh, like the Nazis after him, had an intention. His intention, ultimately, was to eliminate the Jewish people.

To abstain from rearing children during a famine is not to hand a victory to the famine. But for the Israelites to refrain from rearing children in Egypt, Miriam argues, is precisely, to hand a victory to our oppressors (even going further that Pharaoh's edict, which only effected male babies).

Rabbi Rottenburg, like Amram before him, regarded a time of national travail, at the hands of genocidal anti-Semites, as a "time of famine;" an horrific season to endure. But Rabbi Weiss, like Miriam before him, didn't see a comparison between years of famine and years of oppression. To resist a famine makes no sense, and will only add sorrow to the world by raising yet more hungry children. But to resist oppression does make sense. And to have a child, in that context, can be an act of resistance.

Is that fair on the child? That's not an easy question to answer. But first of all, the resistance is only undertaken in the name of Jewish continuity. The child in question will be an integral part of the people for whom that resistance is undertaken. Moreover, it would be harsh beyond belief to blame the victims of oppression for bringing children into a world where those children will be oppressed, since the only people worthy of criticism here are the oppressors.

Parenthood is about hope. Miriam had to believe that evil was vulnerable (Pharaoh's ruling may or may nor stand); but the principles of justice and goodness simply have to endure, against whatever odds ("your decree will certainly be fulfilled"). And so, to stop procreating in the midst of Egypt, as Miriam understood things, would be to give up hope.

This brings us back to the names at the start of the book. The book of Shemot starts with a list of names, before an explosion of childbirth without names. Why? Perhaps because the parents of the new generation continued to use the names of those who came before. There were new children, but no new names. And indeed, a well known Midrash teaches that the Jews were ultimately redeemed from Egypt, in part, because they continued to give their children Jewish names. Perhaps this is a comment about maintaining a distinct identity. But I like to think that it's something more than that. Witness just one more Midrash:

"And these are the names of the Children of Israel" (Exodus 1:1) -- these [names] are mentioned here because they [allude to] the redemption of Israel -- Reuben, as it is stated "I have seen the suffering of my people" (Exodus 3:7) [since Reuben's name is derived from the Hebrew word for sight]; Simon, in virtue of, "And God heard their cries" (Exodus 2:24) [since Simon's name is derived from the Hebrew word for hearing]; Levi, regarding the way in which the Holy One, blessed be He, became a partner in their suffering in the burning bush, so as to fulfill that which is written, "I am with him in his suffering" (Psalms 98:15) [since Levi's name is derived from the Hebrew word for joining or clinging to something]...

The Midrash continues, through each of the twelves names of the sons of Jacob, transforming each name into a reference to Israel's future redemption. Perhaps the idea is that a Jewish name can sometimes function as a prayer. Parents invest so much hope and so much prayer into their offspring, and these hopes and prayers can sometimes be encapsulated in the names that they choose for their children. The fact that the Jews in Egypt continued to raise children, and continued to give them Jewish names, is a testament to the fact that -- like Miriam -- they never gave up on the hope of redemption.

Of course, Amram and Rabbi Rottgenburg also didn't give up. They were able to relate to their times as a famine. Whether or not this was the right halakhic analysis of their situation, it certainly implies that they were living in the faith that the bad times would pass.

To be a Jew is to carry the hopes of thousands of years inside of yourself.

To have a Jewish child is to invest those hopes into the latest link in the chain. What terrified the Egyptians, perhaps, was nothing more than the burning flame of an ancient hope that glows, with an almost supernatural intensity, in the heart of every Jew; a flame that every Jewish parent passes on to their children; a flame that, by the grace of God, cannot be extinguished.


Thanks to Rabbi Chanoch Waxman, Rabbi Johnny Solomon, Dr Ariel Meirav, and to Gaby and Saadya Lebens - each of whom helped me in one way or another to write this week's post.

This week's post is written in honour of my Mother, Leonie Lebens, on the ocassion of her 70th birthday; in recognition of the love, and hope, and prayers that she invests in me, my wife, my siblings, and our children.

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