Sermon given December 17, 1999, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
Late last March, Toni and I read a most intriguing article in the newspaper. The subject was the “Y2K baby,” the first child to be born on January 1, 2000. The article advised couples, wishing to give birth to the “millennium baby,” that they should strive to conceive on April 9. Now, as many of you know, Toni and I were fertility patients for two years. Babies like ours are conceived in a laboratory, according to a schedule set by the physician, not with a particularly desired due date in mind. Believe it or not, before we ever read that article about the “Y2K baby,” we were scheduled for in vitro fertilization on that magical date, April 9. Blessedly, with the help of God and of our skilled and compassionate doctor, Toni did become pregnant that day. The due date was set for January 2.
People often ask us if we hope that our child will be born on January 1. Our response is that we hope that our baby will be healthy, whenever he arrives. The truth be told, a rabbi’s kid does not need the added publicity of being pictured in the newspaper as the first baby of the year, let alone the “Y2K baby.” Now that the pregnancy has reached well into the ninth month, our only prayer with regard to the baby’s arrival date is for Toni’s comfort: let it be sooner rather than later, and please, not December 25!
Be that as it may, I’m told that the birth of a child causes a total change in a person’s life. “You will never sleep again,” they tell me. “Nothing will ever be the same,” they say. Folks tell us that our lives will revolve around our child, that our priorities will be different. Since our busy schedules have led Toni and me to eat out almost every night, our friends fear that the birth of our baby will cause several San Antonio restaurants to collapse.
Of course, the most important changes will have nothing to do with where we eat, or even with how much we sleep. Our lives, which have revolved around each other, the Temple, and Toni’s practice of psychiatry, will now be centered first and foremost upon our child. I wonder how our new priorities will affect my rabbinical service, how the congregation will receive me, not just as a husband, but also as a father, first, and as a rabbi, second. And, after all the years of hearing “horror stories” about rabbis’ kids, we are about to have one.
Thankfully, we have good role models here at Temple Beth-El. For much of Rabbi Stahl’s service here, he and Lynn had children at home, as did Rabbi and Helen Jacobson before them. Though I didn’t know Liz and Dottie Jacobson as children, I did know Heather and Alisa Stahl, and they were hardly the difficult rabbi’s kids, suggested by the stereotype.
But what will people think, when I am unable to keep an appointment, because our child has suddenly fallen ill? Will a congregant feel slighted, some time in the weeks ahead, when I am unable to participate in a life cycle ceremony, because Toni has recently given birth? And how will I react, the first time my own child is the one making just a bit too much noise during services?
Well, I am confident that our congregation will be understanding and supportive. Just as you surrounded Toni and me with love on our wedding day in 1995, we look forward to having you with us when our child will be named and blessed, God willing, here on the bimah during a Friday evening service. You shared our pain during our years of infertility, and you have expressed great joy for us throughout the last nine months. We are truly looking forward to sharing our great joy with our Temple family.
And yet, one biblical story gives me pause. I’m thinking of Moses, the first rabbi, not in his role as leader of the Jewish people, but as a father. Few people are familiar with the narrative in which Moses, setting out to free the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage, evidently fails to circumcise his newborn son. The task is left to his non-Jewish wife, who then leaves Moses with the children and does not accompany him to Egypt. Later, after the Exodus, Moses does not seek to reunite with his family, and only the initiative of his father-in-law brings his sons and their mother back to Moses. Even then, and for the rest of his life, the Torah gives us no indication that Moses was an attentive father or in any way interested in his paternal role.
Thankfully, I am not Moses. Blessedly, my task is considerably less formidable than his. Indeed, we ought not stand in judgment of Moses; perhaps he had no choice but to subjugate fatherhood to his role as leader of the Children of Israel. The truth, though, is that too many men, even in our own day, pay too much attention to their work outside the home and give too little heed to their children. Rabbis are not the only professionals who often put their careers first. How many doctors see their patients more than their children? How many businessmen feel pulled to work-related social functions, rather than to their children’s recitals, school plays, and athletic events? How many nights do lawyers spend at the office and not at home? These issues affect women who work outside the home, as well as men; but the truth is that most women do a better job of balancing, and of prioritizing their families.
I recall a graduation ceremony at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, when I received my Master’s degree, upon the completion of my third year of rabbinical studies. One of my classmates, a newlywed, was the speaker. He implored all of us – rabbis, Jewish educators and communal workers – to be models to the communities we would serve. As dedicated as we would be to our careers, indeed, to our sacred tasks, we must be even more devoted to our families. When our congregants would see that even a rabbi – a person perceived to have a twenty-four hour, seven day a week commitment to his work – puts his family first, then the other working parents in our midst would follow our lead and put their children above their careers.
At the time, I thought the speaker was naive and rather self-serving. I feared that too many of my colleagues do not work hard enough, are not sufficiently passionate about our critical mission, and offer their families as an excuse for failing to serve their congregations unselfishly. Though I still harbor that concern today, I also believe that the speaker’s message was important. Many of us, not just rabbis, and certainly not just Moses, sacrifice our children to our work outside the home.
Yes, our careers matter. Certainly, my rabbinate isn’t just a job to me; it is a sacred calling, even a mission. Many of us work very hard in our chosen fields. And yet, working outside the home may often be easier than confronting what awaits us at our own houses. Even service to other families at times of need is less emotionally demanding than interaction with one’s own family. Therefore, workaholism is often an excuse to avoid the harder work of being an attentive spouse and an active parent.
As Toni and I await our “Y2K baby,” I pray that we will put him and each other first in our lives, even before our sacred callings. I ask God to give me the strength to say “no,” even to a congregant in need, when my family needs me more. And may God give each working parent in our midst the ability and the drive to be fully present for our children, even as we continue to pursue vital professional tasks.
That prayer was composed and uttered with faith. I believe that God will be with Toni and me as we welcome our child, and will help us to do what is right. And yet, we also know that we do not live in a perfect world; and none of us fails to make mistakes. I guarantee that I will not always prioritize my family over my rabbinate when I should; and days will come when I should place my congregational obligations first, but do not.
These imperfections, though, are minor, compared to the ills of the world into which Toni and I will bring a child at the dawn of the new millennium. We are bringing a child into a world filled with war and hatred and bloodshed. We are bringing a child into a world in which some parents kill their children, and others intentionally harm their very own babies, physically and emotionally. We are bringing a child into a world where children have guns, and use them, to kill other children. We are bringing a child into a world that tolerates poverty, hunger, and homelessness, even in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. Toni plans to give birth to our child in a hospital with the world’s finest medical service, even for a simple procedure, in a world where billions of people lack even the most basic health care, even when stricken with a devastating disease.
As we enter a new millennium in the secular calendar, some in our midst believe that the apocalypse will soon be upon us. A few fanatics have attempted to take up residence in Jerusalem, where they hope to be the first to be saved in the rapture. This extreme religious fervor is reminiscent of a wave of messianic hope and expectation that washed over our people two thousand years ago in the Land of Israel. Our ancestors were living under oppressive Roman rule. They were poverty-stricken, powerless and pitiful. They developed an idea that God would soon come, to save them from this cruel world.
A minority of our people in those days eventually came to believe that messianic redemption could not be found in this world. They accepted a new and different faith, that they would be saved after death, in another life, forever, after the end of their life on Earth.
We Jews do affirm that our souls are eternal. We believe that, when our earthly course is complete, we shall live forever in the presence of God. And yet, we have never abandoned hope that this world can be redeemed. We never transferred our messianic dreams from this world to the realm of the dead. We continue to dream that this world, the world in which we live and love, the world into which we bring children, can be made more perfect.
Therefore, Jewish tradition calls for a chair to be set aside for Elijah at each Brit Milah or Baby Naming service. That practice is similar to opening the door for Elijah on Passover, hoping for the arrival of that prophet whose task is to herald the coming of the messianic age. Even as we bring a child into a world with such terrible evil, we do so with the faith that redemption will come in the lifetime of our child. Even as we bring a child into a world of sadness, we look at our baby and at Elijah’s chair, and we recommit ourselves to making life on Earth a blessing for all humanity. Even as we bring a child into an imperfect world, we pray that he will work to bring the messianic age himself.
As Toni and I await our Y2K baby, with your prayers, as I looked into the eyes of so many young children at TOT Shabbat earlier this evening, as we all gaze into the twenty-first century, we ask God to be our partner. Let there be peace on Earth.