Recently, I came across an advertisement challenging religion. The ad depicted a person extending their hand to an individual in need, helping to lift them up. The ad remarked, “you don’t need G-d”. It went on to say, just be a person who helps others and follows the golden rule. Maybe it makes sense? There are many irreligious folks who are good people with compassion.
Yet, as Jews, we know that monotheism is a foundation for how we relate to the holiness of every person. That holiness was not recognized in the ancient world outside the Jewish people. In the modern world, too, we have a long way to go.
But is there a secular paradigm for life that is moral and good? Perhaps secular society can come to a sort of “peace” where people play nicely in the sandbox? As one atheist woman commented on the ad, she had “no trouble” raising her kids that treat others the way they want to be treated.
The Jewish Legacy
Between the lives of Noach and Avraham, we read about the Tower of Bavel. Evidently, the people who built that tower knew how to “get along in the sandbox”. Rashi points out that while the generation of the flood lacked Shalom, this generation of the Tower of Bavel had Shalom as they worked together to advance their goals of ascending to Heaven.
The tower they built did not withstand time. Its ultimate collapse is symbolic of a trend. The Babylonians built a tower and the Egyptians built pyramids. These societies thought that erecting structures would create an eternal name.
Judaism has a different approach. We do not create a legacy through pyramids or great structures. We create a legacy by building family. On the hearts of our children, we engrave the words of Torah that transmit our values from one generation to the next.
Transmission of values was central in the life of Avraham. Prior to destroying Sedom, the Almighty declared that he must reveal the destruction of that city to Avram. What was so special about Avram that G-d gave him this knowledge? The Torah explains:
For I know him that he commands his children and his household after him to guard the way of HaShem to do charity and justice.(Gen. 18, 19)
In fact, the very name of this singular hero—Avraham—means “father of many nations”. His role was to be a father, fostering a sense of family in society. In fact, the entire book of Genesis from which we derive our core values, is a book about family, the vehicle through which we transmit the core values the world needs.
The Book of Family
In our times, we sense a need to build a culture founded on respect. Examples of disrespect and disgrace for people abound in our modern society. Sadly, the family structure is diminished and challenged in modern times. Amidst these challenges, the Jewish people are a stronghold of family.
The word family appears many times in Genesis. The first time that it appears is in Noach when the Torah states that the animals came out of the Arc “according to their families” (Gen. 8, 19). Rashi points out that prior to the flood, depravity prevailed in society. At the end of the first Parsha, the Torah talks about the lack of family values as the Nefilim and Bnei Elokim “took whichever women they pleased”. Rashi comments that in the pre-flood world, even the animal world reflected that depravity.
On the other hand, the post flood world was meant to be a world of greater family values. Noach saves the world by entering the Teva with his family. The first time the Torah gives us this term “family” is just as the animal world leaves the arc for the new world.
The Cradle of Mishpacha
Family is so important in Jewish life. What is the role of family in advancing morality? The Torah places strong emphasis on two contradictory ideas: the individual and the community.
Some societies—such as Japanese culture—place the heaviest emphasis on society as a whole. In the US, on the other hand, people seem to value the rugged individual who lifts themselves up by the bootstraps.
Judaism strongly emphasizes both of these ideas. We serve G-d publicly at the Beit HaMikdash or in Shul. At the same time, the Torah consistently focuses on the spiritual strenghts of the individuals. Whether the individual Avot or each tribe, the Torah heeds close attention to individual strengths.
Family, so central in Judaism, is an interface between the individual and the society. In fact, in Deuteronomy, the Torah refers to marriage as “entering into the community”. Within the nurturing womb of the family, a young life blossoms both as an individual as well as a part of a society.
In the family, the parents see and nurture the uniqueness of each child. The nuclear family is small, so no child gets lost. On the other hand, within the family, we become part of something that is larger than ourselves. In the family, we honor our parents, our creators. That is a literal baby step toward honoring the ultimate Creator, HaShem.
Losing Sight of Family
Yet, even in the post flood world, people can deviate from the family centered structure. In the narrative about the Tower of Bavel, we read about what life looks like when people lose sight of the Torah’s family centered vision. The Torah states:
And the entire land was of one language and of united words, and they said, each one to his fellow, let us build a city for ourselves, and a tower, its head in the heavens, and make for ourselves a name, lest we spread across the land.(Genesis. 11:4)
The generation was absorbed by the idea of society and making a name. The Midrash elaborates on how much they cared about society as opposed to individual people:
If a person fell and died, the people of Bavel wouldn’t pay attention to him or her; but if a brick fell, they would sit and cry and say: how are we going to replace it?(Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 24:7)
This Midrashic reflection points to how twisted human values can become when the center of our lives is something other than G-d.
The Gift of the Jews
Is there a secular model for living? Perhaps. Yet, Torah gives us something infinitely deeper than playing nicely in the sandbox. The family as a sanctified unit is a gift of the Jewish people.
The family unit is the cradle of a civilization learning and yearning to know its Creator. The transmission of the family from generation to generation is a hallmark achievement of the Jewish people.
In my own life, one of the most powerful things about being Jewish growing up was Friday night dinner. As immersed as my family was in the non-Jewish world, each Friday night was a time that we came together.
In my 20s, I realized how deeply this impacted me. I was invited to many homes both in Israel and in Boston during my college years. I remember once sitting with a family in Jerusalem at the age of 19. I looked around the room at a Pesach Seder, very late at night—parents, grandparents, children—all steeped in joy and song.
That night, as I left that apartment and walked through the streets of Jerusalem, I listened as other families sang in their own homes. People gathering “according to their families”.
Outside of the Jewish people, family is more fragile and tenuous. The Jewish family is a gift to the world…
In the coming months, as we read Genesis, remember that this is a book about family. As you read about the cradle of our nurturing—our early Mishpacha—seek out the lessons from our greater Jewish family. Learn them well and impart them to your family and all those around you.