Shabbat Vayera 5776

Avraham and Sarah are desperate to have a child. Last week, extreme measures were taken when Hagar was used as a surrogate. This week, Divine messengers bring the news that Sarah herself will become pregnant. Yitzhak is born, but by the end of Parshat Vayera this week, Avraham may well have lost both of his sons–Yishma’el to banishment, and Yitzhak, nearly sacrificed, may have been lost to self-exile.

The irony of Avraham–“av hamon goyim, father of many nations,” struggling to become a father at all–is crucial to Israel’s self-perception as a nation. Are we as a People big (600,000 at the Exodus, excluding women and children), or small (“it was not because of your great numbers that the LORD cleaved to you,” says Moshe in Deuteronomy)?

In light of the announcement out of China this week that the long-enforced one-child policy is being relaxed, one wonders whether Judaism has a population growth policy, or should it? It may be of interest to note that according to the 2013 Pew Study on Jewish demographics, the fertility rate of Jewish women in the US is 1.9 children per woman (2.3 is considered “replacement level”). 

While considering this question, listen to this Israeli song about population policy by the celebrated playwright Yehoshua Sobel (music by Shlomo Bar). You can find a clip of a cover of this song, called Yeladim Zeh Simhah (Children Are a Joy), by Israeli pop diva Rita, by clicking here. For the lyrics in translation and transliteration, follow this link.

On Shabbat morning, we’ll explore Jewish ideas on population policy, and try to answer the question: what does the story we tell about our numbers say about us as a People?

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David Wise