Shaarei Shamayim

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Rebecca asks a question in this week’s Torah reading that today would be troubling. She has spent years trying to have a child. She’s prayed and cried, but to no avail. So she turns to her husband, Isaac, and she says, Im keyn, lama zeh anochi? “If this is my fate, then why should I live?”

Rebecca lived in a world in which a woman’s worth was measured by whether she had a husband and children. And so without children, she becomes desperate and cries out: “If I have no child, what sense does my life make?”

Rabbi Jack Reimer asks: Imagine with me what would happen if Rebecca were to come back to life in our time, and ask that question. What would happen if she said in the presence of some of the young people that we know: “If I have no children, why should I live?”

          I think that many of the young people in the world today would giggle if they heard her question. They would say, “What on earth are you talking about, Ma’am? We have a rich and a productive life, even if we have no children.”

You see, not having children is no longer a shanda. Today it’s a choice and—my opinion—the world is suffering because of that choice. Consider the following:

  • In Scandinavia, the number of people who live alone is now 45%!!! Think about that! Almost half the people in Scandinavia live alone—some of them by necessity, many of them by choice.
  • In Spain, the number of marriages has declined from 275,000 in 1975 to one 170,000 today. That’s a decline of almost 1/3 in a little over a generation!!!
  • In Germany, 30% of the women who were interviewed said that they do not intend to have any children. 30%!
  • In Taiwan, almost 50% of the women who were interviewed said that they do not intend to have any children. 50%!
  • Singapore, which used to be one of the most family centered societies in the world, now has the lowest birth rate of any country in the world!
  • In Brazil, the birth rate has dropped from 4.3 children per family 25 years ago to 1.9 children per family today. Brazil is one of the richest and one of the most productive countries in the world and yet its birth rate is now below the minimum that is needed for survival!
  • And in America, the number of singles living alone has shot up from 9% in 1950 to 28% today. The number of singles in this country has tripled in just 2 generations! And the number of family households with the traditional married couple and children has declined from 87% to just 20%! What will become of America with the decline of the American family?
  • And now, here’s my favorite statistic of all:  Population studies show that there are now more homes in America that have dogs than there are homes in America that have children! Unbelievable!

A lot of villains are cited for these ills, most often “a decline of traditional values.” But that answer is too easy because it puts the blame—and thus the solution—outside the family.

Perhaps the real problem is time—not just the times we’re living in, though that is certainly a big part of it, but how we spend our time. There’s no better evidence of a person’s values than how he/she allocates time. And given the pace of our lives today, I’d bet that the amount of time that American family members spend with each other is at a historical low.

Jagdish Sheth, a marketing professor at Emory University, says that we’re evolving toward what he calls, “The Roommate Family”—family members who relate to each other no more often, and with no more intimacy, than roommates who share a common dwelling. Each family member lives in his or her own space, their lives intersecting with their “roommates” only if they happen upon them in common areas such as the kitchen.

To no small degree, this lifestyle has been enabled by today’s technology. With our tablets and smart phones and computers, we are insulating ourselves more and more. If you punish your kid by sending him/her to their room, they’ll just open their tablet or phone and be online with friends or watch various media outlets. Some punishment!

When I grew up, the glue of the family, the means by which critical information and values were shared was dinner table—where we all sat at the same time. We shared what we did that day. We commented upon current events. We laughed and we argued and we learned from each other. I suspect that for growing numbers this is no longer the case. 

In his 1964 classic, Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan relates the story of several post-war villages in India where UNESCO, the United Nations relief agency, had installed pipes to deliver running water to each home. After a few months, the village elders went to UNESCO and asked that the pipes be ripped out.

The elders had realized that no one congregated any longer at the village well, where they used to wait in line to fill their water jugs. The well had been the communal center of village life—the place where village values were reinforced and gossip exchanged. It was the place where the village met to create a sense of identity. With running water delivered to each home, the well no longer served that essential purpose and they were afraid that they would lose so much of who they were.

In today’s parsha, we see a family that is rife with turmoil. Parents play favorites with their children—Isaac loving Esav and Rebecca loving Jacob. One parent, Rebecca, forces her favorite, Jacob, to deceive his father and steal his brother’s blessing. It seems like such a dysfunctional family. A careful analysis of the text reveals a possible underlying cause—husband and wife, mother and father rarely, if ever, spoke to each other. Everyone was so busy that they didn’t make the time to have family time—to just be together.

Are we any different? In so many of today’s families, the communal well—the dinner table, the Shabbos table—has been abandoned and each one of us has created our own personal world, our own personal pipeline through our smart phones and tablets. In McLuhan’s story, though, the elders had the sense to understand what was happening and to take action. Before it’s too late, let us open our eyes to what’s happening in our own lives. Amen!

                                                Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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