Babies are back. In the 80s, fewer families had children, and families had fewer children. In the 90s, more and more families have discovered that raising children is one of the most satisfying of all human endeavors.
The Prophet Isaiah states:1 "The wolf will dwell with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the young goat... and a child will lead them." There is a connection between the trend back toward family and Isaiah's vision, because the simple faith and incessant creativity of children -- their unwillingness to accept complacency -- make them a driving force toward change in society.
About 13 years ago, my wife and I served as emissaries (Shluchim) for the Lubavitcher Rebbe Shlita in South Africa. With youthful energy and idealism, we were anxious to spread the vitality that the Rebbe had infused into Jewish life.
We arrived in November. South of the equator, the seasons are reversed, so our first major project was leading a summer camp in December. When we left the Lubavitch community in Crown Heights, the children had begun singing the song, "We want Mashiach now; we don't want to wait." The Rebbe had encouraged the singing of this song, explaining that children intuitively feel something is lacking in their lives because Mashiach has not yet come.2 We thought it important to teach this song to the children in our camp.
Now, 13 years ago in Capetown, the very concept of Mashiach was foreign. I doubt if the children there had ever heard the word. First, we taught the song to the counselors (most of them youths from Johannesburg who had a deeper connection to Judaism) and then we intended to teach it to the children.
My wife was to teach the girls. Because of the unfamiliarity of the subject, she had planned to introduce the song with a story and parable. But as she walked into the lunchroom, she was surprised to hear all the children singing "our song." The counselors had been inspired; they had taught it to the children, and the song had caught on.
My wife turned to one girl who was singing very loudly and asked: "Who is Mashiach?"
The girl replied: "I don't know, but I want him to come now."
How true this is for all of us! We all want Mashiach to come. Yet we do not fully comprehend what this would mean.
There are several levels to this concept. Once the followers of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi turned to him and complained: "Rebbe, we have been praying so hard for Mashiach, and still G-d has not sent him."
The Rebbe answered: "Maybe the Mashiach you are praying for is not the one G-d wants to bring."
What the Rebbe meant was that often we look forward to Mashiach's coming for personal reasons: to cover the overdraft in the bank, to resolve personal difficulties, or even to help us advance spiritually. G-d's concept of Mashiach involves the fulfillment of the ultimate purpose of Creation -- the establishment of a dwelling for Him in this material world.
On a deeper level, the inability to comprehend Mashiach or the Era of Redemption is not a shortcoming; it is an inevitability. In the Era of Redemption, "Your Master will no longer conceal Himself, and your eyes will behold your Master."3 G-dliness will be revealed without limitation. It is impossible for mortals to comprehend the matter in its entirety. Indeed, in regard to subjects of this nature, our Rabbis counsel that even scholars should try to match the simple faith of the child.4
For simple faith mirrors profound depth. G-d is totally above our mortal comprehension. We can neither know Him nor understand Him in the way we comprehend the material objects around us. In this context, our Rabbis say:5 "The ultimate in knowledge is not to know." The Rabbis were not praising ignorance; they were pointing to the advantages of trust, belief and openness -- qualities children possess in abundance -- and explaining that these qualities allow us to relate to G-d's unlimited dimensions.
As we grow older, we should try to nurture these childlike qualities. One of the most abhorrent things is to see adults acting childishly. Yet one of the most attractive is to see them respond to a situation with the spontaneity, sensitivity, and energy of children.
The Grand Rebbe of Bobov was once sitting with his chassidim. As often happens at such a get-together, they ran out of refreshments. Immediately, a collection was made to purchase more. But who would go? None of the respected gentlemen was bestirred enough to trouble himself.
When the Rebbe saw the atmosphere of the gathering deteriorate as each tried to pass the responsibility to another, he told his followers: "Give me the money. I have a child waiting outside for me. He'll be happy to go to the store for us."
When the Rebbe failed to return shortly thereafter, the Chassidim realized that he had gone himself. Shamefacedly, they waited until he had completed the errand.
When he returned, they protested: "Why didn't you tell us the truth? If we had known you would go yourself, any one of us would have gone instead."
"I did tell you the truth," the Rebbe answered. "As I grew up, I resolved that I would never give up the childlike aspect of my personality. Needless to say, it is not always proper to act like a child. So when I sit with chassidim, I leave the child in me outside. But he is always waiting for me."
There is an intrinsic relationship between children and Mashiach's coming.6 Our Sages tell us7 that the Redemption from Egypt was dependent on the merit of righteous women. Despite Pharaoh's decree requiring Jewish boys to be drowned, these women bravely bore children and raised them as Jews. And our Rabbis assure us that the Redemption will come in the merit of righteous women who follow the example of their ancestors, bearing children and raising them as proud Jews.
Without endeavoring to fathom this process of spiritual causality, we can notice the radical changes being wrought by today's renewed desire for family. The '80s were referred to as the "me" decade. Not surprisingly, there was a rise in divorce and families had fewer children. Indeed, the entire concept of the nuclear family was challenged, and in many instances redefined. Now we are witnessing a swing back to more traditional mores. There is a greater desire for lasting marriage. Couples are deciding to have more children, and to spend more time with them.
But the desire to spend time together is not always enough. Even when parents love their children and genuinely care for them, they may have trouble building bridges of communication. The reasons are often obvious. When the most important family discussions are about how often to buy a car, and which television programs to watch, it is natural that a family will grow apart.
Why is there a generation gap? Not because parents and children don't care for each other, but because they have been educated to self-interest. When every member is concerned with his own personal benefit, it is natural that the family structure suffers. When the father stays late at the office, the mother is over-involved in her job or community work, and the children have different social functions to attend, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to maintain a deep relationship. Without something to bind them together, they will sleep under the same roof, sit in the same living room, watch the same TV programs, and yet be worlds apart.
What can cement the relationship between parents and children? True values. When a family shares principles and values, its members have something which brings them together. The more lasting the values, the more powerful and permanent the bond.
By nature, people want to share, but are often clumsy in doing so. That clumsiness, however, can be overcome. Parents who stutter or have other difficulties expressing themselves often have powerful bonds with their children.
Nor does the difficulty lie in having something to communicate. Every person has a host of experiences rich with meaning and value.8 What matters is the ability to select the experiences to communicate, and in which context. This is where having genuine values and principles makes all the difference.
When a family shares a sense of mission and purpose, its members have a framework with which to guide and govern their responses to the world. This sense of vision is shared by all, and builds bridges across the generations. In such families, parents talk to their children until late at night. And children crowd around their grandparents listening to stories. The whole family gets together for evenings of shared reminiscences, song, and laughter.
There is an old Yiddish adage which says: "More than Israel has kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept Israel." The closeness established around the Shabbos table provides the dynamism that has made the Jewish family an ideal looked up to by other cultures.
(Important by-products of such a relationship are the dignity it restores to old age and the great resources of experience that this dignity makes available to other family members. What's the difference between a revered elder and an old fogy? The former stands for something, and his children and grandchildren share his purpose.9)
The greater the purpose and the deeper the values shared, the more powerful the bond connecting family members to each other. This is one lesson of the song we mentioned. When children feel a lack in their lives because Mashiach has not come, they and their parents -- when these sentiments are shared by the family as a whole -- are focusing on the most meaningful of values, the very purpose of Creation.
Perhaps this is implied in the verse:10 "Behold I will send you Eliyah[u] the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day.... And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children." The prophet is telling us that "the great and awesome day," the coming of Redemption, will be heralded by families coming together. Focusing on the imminence of that day and cultivating the awareness that we are on the threshold of understanding will enable parents and children to internalize these values.
Our Rabbis point out another important dimension of the verse. Rashi interprets it to mean, "He will turn the hearts of the fathers to G-d through the medium of the children."11 In this time of transition, we can learn from our children.
Our Sages tell us12 that it was the children who first recognized G-d at the crossing of the Red Sea. Similarly, in the Era of Redemption, it will be the children who first sense the nature of the times. The emphasis is not on the historical parallel. Quite the contrary, the parallel exists because there is an intrinsic connection between the perception of G-d's hand and the unique nature which children possess. For the inquisitiveness, creativity, and energy of children place them firmly in the present, with a focus on the future. They don't need lectures on the value of constant learning; their entire lives are directed toward assimilating new experiences.
Adults, by contrast, often allow their vitality to atrophy. We adopt textbook answers that no longer relate to actual experience. Even after we discover real answers, we often blindly repeat them until they in turn become mere routines, and this prevents us from continuing the growth that gave us those answers in the first place. It is only with the heart of a child that we can understand and put into practice the purpose of G-d.
2. See Sound the Great Shofar (Kehot, 1992), p. 154.
3. Isaiah 30:20.
4. See Rivosh, Responsa 157, quoted in Derech Mitzvosecha, Shoresh Mitzvas HaTefilah.
5. Sefer HaIkrim, R. Yosef Albo.
6. Yevamos 62a.
7. Sotah 11b. Similarly, Yalkut Shimoni, Vol. II, the conclusion of sec. 606, explains that subsequent redemptions also came about through the merit of women.
8. See Kiddushin 33a which explains that great Sages would show respect to vintage gentlemen. Even if the elderly are lacking in the knowledge gained from books, the wisdom that they have culled from their life experience makes them worthy of respect.
9. In regard to this dimension, see the essay entitled "Torah, the Beauty of the Elderly," Sichos In English, Vol. 6, pp. 212 ff.
10. Malachi 3:23-24.
11. Loc. cit. This interpretation stems from the fact that the Hebrew original states al bonim instead of the expected phrase el bonim.
12. Sotah 11b; Shmos Rabbah 23:8. Even the youngest infants joyfully joined in the song of redemption (Sotah 30b).
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