On this Shabbat, erev Shavuot which commemorates the giving of the Torah, I ask you: what’s most important in Jewish life? The obvious answer on erev Shavuot is Torah. Others will say Gd is most important. But I maintain one can make a strong case that it’s family because without family children have little chance of learning about Gd and Torah. That’s why on the bottom, the foundation of the 1st tablet of the 10 Commandments—the tablet with the commandments between man and Gd—is the command: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Why is this command on the tablet of commandments between man and Gd? It’s because family is the foundation upon which Judaism and one’s relationship with Gd is built.
There’s no question that Jewish tradition puts considerable emphasis on the concepts of family, children and continuity. The Torah commands us: “Be fruitful and multiply.” L’dor va dor, “From generation to generation” is a prominent expression in our prayers and has become an expression of Jewish survival today. Combine this with the natural desire to parent, nurture, love and to be loved, there’s considerable motivation for Jews to have children.
When families do not give birth to children, it’s natural to explore alternatives to creating a family. Adoption is a choice that does not always seem obvious, in part because of the mistaken notion that Judaism does not appear to address the subject.
But if you look you’ll find that there are many allusions to adoption in the Torah, the Prophets and Talmudic sources. In fact, the greatest mitzvah is ensuring that needy children are cared for and this even supersedes the commandment to “Be fruitful and multiply”— to give birth to children. Jewish law teaches that nurturing and raising a child are more important than giving birth. Moses was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. Oved, Ruth’s son—whose birth we read about on the 2nd day of Shavuot—was raised by her mother-in-law, Naomi. Esther was adopted by her cousin Mordecai. These child/parent relationships included all the normal parental responsibilities—regardless how they were formed.
Today’s Torah (Bam. 3:1) portion states: V’eyleh toldot Aharon uMoshe (These are the offspring of Aaron and Moses). However, in the subsequent listing of offspring, only Aaron’s children are mentioned—not Moses’ children. Rashi, in trying to answer why Moses’ sons were not mentioned or why then are Aaron’s sons thought of as the offspring of Moses as well, quotes the Talmud (Sanhedrin 19b) that states: “Whoever teaches Torah to others is considered as if he gave birth to them.” In fact, the Talmud there goes even further and teaches: “Whoever raises an orphan in his home is considers to have given birth to him.”
The obvious question is: Can one who is unable to have children fulfill the mitzvah of having children through adoption and teaching and be considered as if he gave birth to them?
The Chasam Sofer (Shut Chasam Soferl, Even Ha’ezer 76) notes that the Torah later (Bam. 26:46) refers to Serach as the daughter of Asher. The Targum, however, informs us that she wasn’t his biological daughter but actually the daughter of his wife from a previous husband. But because she was raised by Asher, the Torah refers to her as his daughter, indicating that one may fulfill the mitzvah to have children through adoption.
Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein (K’motzei Shalal Rav) points out that the Torah (Gen. 46:17) includes Serach in the count of the 70 members of Jacob’s family who came down to Egypt. In fact the Torah (46:26) describes all of the 70 as yotzey y’reycho, as actually being Jacob’s biological descendants. The obvious conclusion is that an adopted child is legally considered in Jewish law as if one gave birth to him/her.
It’s fascinating that Kabbalah maintains that families are often reincarnated together—but not necessarily in the same relationships. Mother and daughter may later be sisters or the daughter becomes the mother. They may have different relationships but they are meant to be together. Therefore, the souls that are together in a family are destined to be together as a family regardless of whether this happens biologically or through adoption.
I’d like to conclude by showing you a Family Circus cartoon by Bil Keane (10/22/93). I found it 23 years ago, but ever since, I give a copy to every adoptive parent I know because its message is so powerful:
3 kids are talking about where they came from and one of them says, “We came from mommy’s tummy. But Joseph is adopted [pointing to her mother pushing her younger brother in a stroller], so he came from mommy’s heart!”
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis