For sermons, teaching and discussions “To Save One Life…” Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Sources on Orphans and Adoption
I remember the intensiveness of Elul and High Holiday preparation as a congregational rabbi and I hope that what I offer here is useful to you. My rabbinic journey started in congregational life but soon turned to writing and a focus on specific issues. One of the subjects of both my writing and my work is the global crisis of unparented children, with a focus on adoption.
For the past 18 months I have traveled North America with my memoir, Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World and, throughout, spoken with people about Second Nurture: Every Child Deserves a Family and a Community. Second Nurture is a program to create garinim (cohorts) of adopting families within larger, supportive communities. We believe that more people will adopt waiting children if they know that their community has their back.
This fall we are beginning with two synagogues, Wilshire Boulevard Temple in LA and Ohev Shalom in DC. We also provide resources for synagogues with adopted children already in the community, so that the experience of adoption is reflected in what it means to be Jewish. If you wish to open your doors to more adoptive Jewish families, or promote adoption in your community, be in touch.
Part of our mission, of course, is raising awareness about the 400,000 children in the US Foster Care system, and the millions in institutions worldwide. These resources are for those of you who would like to teach your communities about kids outside of family care, how we look at those children through a Jewish lens, and what we can do to care for the orphan in meaningful, courageous, and Jewish ways.
In this source sheet you will find intros, thoughts and questions to each text section.And please visit the Second Nurture website at communityadoption.org.
When you come to Israel, please let me know. You are invited for shabbat meals, a place to stay, and/or to a wonderful weekly Torah study group (in English), “Rabbis and Comedians”.
P’SHAT ON OBLIGATIONS TO THE ORPHAN
Here are a few texts that pertain to the Orphan, who is often categorized with the Stranger and the Widow. In the US and Israel today, the Widow is no longer in the same situation as the Orphan and Stranger. That is to say, that unlike a Woman-Without-a-Husband, the Orphan and the Stranger do not have agency of their own, nor do they have anyone with agency devoted to them, personally, as whole, unique and ever-worthy human beings in the world.
I chose psukim from Psalms because I found in them meaningful layers relating to children outside of family care.
There are 400,000 children in the Foster Care system in the US — with 117,000 legally available for adoption today. Kids in the foster system have twice the rate of PTSD as war veterans; A quarter of kids who age out of foster care each year become homeless.
There are between 8-12 million children in institutions worldwide. Children under the “care” of institutions do not fare well. The catch-all phrase is “failure to thrive” and that manifests in many ways. Babies can lose eyesight because they stare at white ceilings and don’t stimulate their optic nerves. IQ points drop, rocking behaviors and self-flagellation behaviors emerge from the child’s desperation for human contact. Lack of physical growth due to malnutrition. Disease. Death.
Children without families are more likely to grow up to be imprisoned, homeless, drug-addicted and trafficked. We care about these issues. We care about children.*
Children need homes, because human beings are wired for love. Children being raised in families is also a solution to the social issues that we as Jews care deeply about.
And children who find families, even later in life, can heal. They can thrive.
אמץ is the root for adoption, אימוץ.
They are also the root letters of strength, courage and virtue.
*I have not used the word “orphan” to describe children in institutions, foster care or on the streets, because its uses and meanings are varied and there is not a single shared definition. Instead, I use “children outside of family care” who do not have a route back to, or to, family life without the intervention of good people. The Bible uses the word “orphan” and so for textual reasons I have kept it, but its meanings are also varied.
In Psalm 82 there is a connection between rescuing the vulnerable and saving them from hands of wicked. Giving children a home and family does more than provide the love and security they desperately need. Children outside of family care are much, much more at risk of being exploited “at the hands of the wicked.” Of trafficked girls and women in the US, 82% come from the foster care system. Pimps wait outside of orphanages worldwide on “release days” when teens are discharged from living under the auspices of state “care” to greet them as they emerge with nowhere to go and no way to support themselves.
(ג) שִׁפְטוּ־דַ֥ל וְיָת֑וֹם עָנִ֖י וָרָ֣שׁ הַצְדִּֽיקוּ׃ (ד) פַּלְּטוּ־דַ֥ל וְאֶבְי֑וֹן מִיַּ֖ד רְשָׁעִ֣ים הַצִּֽילוּ׃
(3) Give justice the wretched and the orphan, vindicate the lowly and the poor, (4) rescue the wretched and the needy; save them from the hand of the wicked.
In Psalm 10 the connection is made between social justice and caring for the most vulnerable. If we take care of vulnerable children, making sure each one has a family of their own, we can help prevent the social ills we fight against. Children without families have a much higher likelihood of entering crime, drug use, trafficking and homelessness.
(יז) תַּאֲוַ֬ת עֲנָוִ֣ים שָׁמַ֣עְתָּ יְהוָ֑ה תָּכִ֥ין לִ֝בָּ֗ם תַּקְשִׁ֥יב אָזְנֶֽךָ׃ (יח) לִשְׁפֹּ֥ט יָת֗וֹם וָ֫דָ֥ךְ בַּל־יוֹסִ֥יף ע֑וֹד לַעֲרֹ֥ץ אֱ֝נ֗וֹשׁ מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
(17) You will listen to the entreaty of the lowly, O LORD, You will make their hearts firm; You will incline Your ear (18) to champion the orphan and the downtrodden, that men who are of the earth tyrannize no more.
In Psalm 68, there is a connection between God’s loftiness and God’s attentiveness to the most vulnerable. It is the God who “rides the clouds” that, seemingly simultaneously, is the “parent of orphans.” Being in God’s image is simultaneously lofty and in the thick of the world’s harshness.
(ה) שִׁ֤ירוּ ׀ לֵֽאלֹהִים֮ זַמְּר֪וּ שְׁ֫מ֥וֹ סֹ֡לּוּ לָרֹכֵ֣ב בָּ֭עֲרָבוֹת בְּיָ֥הּ שְׁמ֗וֹ וְעִלְז֥וּ לְפָנָֽיו׃ (ו) אֲבִ֣י יְ֭תוֹמִים וְדַיַּ֣ן אַלְמָנ֑וֹת אֱ֝לֹהִ֗ים בִּמְע֥וֹן קָדְשֽׁוֹ׃ (ז) אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ מ֘וֹשִׁ֤יב יְחִידִ֨ים ׀ בַּ֗יְתָה מוֹצִ֣יא אֲ֭סִירִים בַּכּוֹשָׁר֑וֹת אַ֥ךְ ס֝וֹרֲרִ֗ים שָׁכְנ֥וּ צְחִיחָֽה׃(5) Sing to God, chant hymns to His name; extol Him who rides the clouds; the LORD is His name. Exult in His presence— (6) the father of orphans, the champion of widows, God, in His holy habitation. (7) God restores the lonely to their homes, sets free the imprisoned, safe and sound, while the rebellious must live in a parched land.
In Psalm 106 there is a connection between happiness and acting rightly at all times.
(ג) אַ֭שְׁרֵי שֹׁמְרֵ֣י מִשְׁפָּ֑ט עֹשֵׂ֖ה צְדָקָ֣ה בְכָל־עֵֽת׃
(3) Happy are those who act justly, who do right at all times.TALMUDIC TEXTS ON SANCTITY OF CARING FOR THE ORPHAN
Expanding on above biblical texts.
In Ketubot, the rabbis describe adoption as the way to fulfill the words of Psalms 106:3 (above), “Happy are they who keep justice, who perform charity at all times.”
(תהלים קו, ג) אשרי שומרי משפט עושה צדקה בכל עת וכי אפשר לעשות צדקה בכל עת דרשו רבותינו שביבנה ואמרי לה רבי אליעזר זה הזן בניו ובנותיו כשהן קטנים רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר זה המגדל יתום ויתומה בתוך ביתו ומשיאן
“Happy are they who keep justice, who perform charity at all times” (Psalms 106:3). But is it possible to perform charity at all times? Is one always in the presence of paupers? Therefore, our Rabbis in Yavne taught, and some say it was Rabbi Eliezer: This is referring to one who sustains his sons and daughters when they are minors. As stated above, he is not formally obligated to support them, and therefore when he does so, it is a form of charity that he gives on a constant basis. Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said: This is referring to one who raises an orphan boy or an orphan girl in his house, takes care of them, and marries them off.
In Megillah, the rabbis use Psalms 68:5-7 (above) to point out that when God is described in an exalted fashion, that description is accompanied by describing God’s compassion for the most vulnerable.
אמר ר’ יוחנן כל מקום שאתה מוצא גבורתו של הקב”ה אתה מוצא ענוותנותו דבר זה כתוב בתורה ושנוי בנביאים ומשולש בכתובים כתוב בתורה (דברים י, יז) כי ה’ אלהיכם הוא אלהי האלהים ואדוני האדונים וכתיב בתריה עושה משפט יתום ואלמנה שנוי בנביאים (ישעיהו נז, טו) כה אמר רם ונשא שוכן עד וקדוש וגו’ וכתיב בתריה ואת דכא ושפל רוח משולש בכתובים דכתיב (תהלים סח, ה) סולו לרוכב בערבות ביה שמו וכתיב בתריה אבי יתומים ודיין אלמנות
Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Wherever you find a reference in the Bible to the might of the Holy One, you also find a reference to God’s alliance with the vulnerable adjacent to it. Evidence of this fact is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Writings. It is written in the Torah: “For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords” (Deuteronomy 10:17), and it is written immediately afterward: “He executes the judgment of the fatherless and widow” (Deuteronomy 10:18), displaying his humility in caring for even the weakest parts of society. It is repeated in the Prophets: “For thus says the High and Lofty One that inhabits eternity, Whose name is sacred” (Isaiah 57:15), and it is written immediately afterward: “In the high and holy place I dwell with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Isaiah 57:15). It is stated a third time in the Writings, as it is written: “Extol Him Who rides upon the clouds, Whose name is the Lord” (Psalms 68:5), and it is written immediately afterward: “A father of the fatherless, and a judge of widows” (Psalms 68:6).
BIBLICAL AND RABBINIC STORIES THAT ILLUSTRATE SEPARATION OF PARENT AND CHILD AS WELL AS ADOPTIVE RELATIONSHIPS
GENESIS 22: AKEIDA
- Abraham and Sarah long awaited their son, Isaac. Then, bam, the Akeida! That turns the relationship between Abraham and Isaac from what Buber would call “I-Thou” into “I-It”. For Abraham, he can no longer see his son fully, as Isaac’s own human self made in God’s image. Now Isaac is a means to an end, a tool for proving the depth of Abraham’s devotion to God. Buber’s I-Thou vs I-It. An orphan, like the other biblical category “stranger”, doesn’t have agency in the world, nor do they have someone with agency saying, “I got you.” Orphanage workers must respond to the need of “the masses” with food and shelter, basic needs and protections. Even in this important work, children instruments of achievement. The recipients of what Buber calls an I-It relationship. But the ultimate goal for every person, if we believe that we are each made b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, is personal agency or, at least, an I-Thou relationship with someone who has agency. Ideally both.
- Both Abraham and Isaac are nearly silent before the all-mighty divine power. How can we go against God? The orphan crisis worldwide is so huge, that we find ourselves silent before it, diminished. Similar on a personal scale, if a child is traumatized, how can I help? Can I raise such a child? But it is incumbent upon us to act with love and courage, not intimidation and fear. Before Akeidah, Abraham was described as a “Lover of God”. After, he was known as a “Fearer of God”.
- Systemically, we sacrifice children on the altars of politics, religion, ideology and expediency.
(א) וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃ (ב) וַיֹּ֡אמֶר קַח־נָ֠א אֶת־בִּנְךָ֨ אֶת־יְחִֽידְךָ֤ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַ֙בְתָּ֙ אֶת־יִצְחָ֔ק וְלֶךְ־לְךָ֔ אֶל־אֶ֖רֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּ֑ה וְהַעֲלֵ֤הוּ שָׁם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה עַ֚ל אַחַ֣ד הֶֽהָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֹמַ֥ר אֵלֶֽיךָ׃ (ג) וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם אַבְרָהָ֜ם בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַֽיַּחֲבֹשׁ֙ אֶת־חֲמֹר֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֞ח אֶת־שְׁנֵ֤י נְעָרָיו֙ אִתּ֔וֹ וְאֵ֖ת יִצְחָ֣ק בְּנ֑וֹ וַיְבַקַּע֙ עֲצֵ֣י עֹלָ֔ה וַיָּ֣קָם וַיֵּ֔לֶךְ אֶל־הַמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁר־אָֽמַר־ל֥וֹ הָאֱלֹהִֽים׃ (ד) בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֗י וַיִּשָּׂ֨א אַבְרָהָ֧ם אֶת־עֵינָ֛יו וַיַּ֥רְא אֶת־הַמָּק֖וֹם מֵרָחֹֽק׃ (ה) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶל־נְעָרָ֗יו שְׁבוּ־לָכֶ֥ם פֹּה֙ עִֽם־הַחֲמ֔וֹר וַאֲנִ֣י וְהַנַּ֔עַר נֵלְכָ֖ה עַד־כֹּ֑ה וְנִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֖ה וְנָשׁ֥וּבָה אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃ (ו) וַיִּקַּ֨ח אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־עֲצֵ֣י הָעֹלָ֗ה וַיָּ֙שֶׂם֙ עַל־יִצְחָ֣ק בְּנ֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֣ח בְּיָד֔וֹ אֶת־הָאֵ֖שׁ וְאֶת־הַֽמַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו׃ (ז) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יִצְחָ֜ק אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֤ם אָבִיו֙ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אָבִ֔י וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֶּ֣נִּֽי בְנִ֑י וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הִנֵּ֤ה הָאֵשׁ֙ וְהָ֣עֵצִ֔ים וְאַיֵּ֥ה הַשֶּׂ֖ה לְעֹלָֽה׃ (ח) וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֱלֹהִ֞ים יִרְאֶה־לּ֥וֹ הַשֶּׂ֛ה לְעֹלָ֖ה בְּנִ֑י וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו׃ (ט) וַיָּבֹ֗אוּ אֶֽל־הַמָּקוֹם֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽמַר־ל֣וֹ הָאֱלֹהִים֒ וַיִּ֨בֶן שָׁ֤ם אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶת־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ וַֽיַּעֲרֹ֖ךְ אֶת־הָעֵצִ֑ים וַֽיַּעֲקֹד֙ אֶת־יִצְחָ֣ק בְּנ֔וֹ וַיָּ֤שֶׂם אֹתוֹ֙ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ מִמַּ֖עַל לָעֵצִֽים׃ (י) וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶת־יָד֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת־הַֽמַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת לִשְׁחֹ֖ט אֶת־בְּנֽוֹ׃ (יא) וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֜יו מַלְאַ֤ךְ יְהוָה֙ מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֣ם ׀ אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃ (יב) וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אַל־תִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָֽדְךָ֙ אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וְאַל־תַּ֥עַשׂ ל֖וֹ מְא֑וּמָּה כִּ֣י ׀ עַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֗עְתִּי כִּֽי־יְרֵ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אַ֔תָּה וְלֹ֥א חָשַׂ֛כְתָּ אֶת־בִּנְךָ֥ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ֖ מִמֶּֽנִּי׃ (יג) וַיִּשָּׂ֨א אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ וְהִנֵּה־אַ֔יִל אַחַ֕ר נֶאֱחַ֥ז בַּסְּבַ֖ךְ בְּקַרְנָ֑יו וַיֵּ֤לֶךְ אַבְרָהָם֙ וַיִּקַּ֣ח אֶת־הָאַ֔יִל וַיַּעֲלֵ֥הוּ לְעֹלָ֖ה תַּ֥חַת בְּנֽוֹ׃ (יד) וַיִּקְרָ֧א אַבְרָהָ֛ם שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יִרְאֶ֑ה אֲשֶׁר֙ יֵאָמֵ֣ר הַיּ֔וֹם בְּהַ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה יֵרָאֶֽה׃
(1) Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” (2) And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (3) So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him. (4) On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar. (5) Then Abraham said to his servants, “You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.” (6) Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He himself took the firestone and the knife; and the two walked off together. (7) Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (8) And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together. (9) They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. (10) And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. (11) Then an angel of the LORD called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” (12) And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” (13) When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. (14) And Abraham named that site Adonai-yireh, whence the present saying, “On the mount of the LORD there is vision.”
GENESIS 21: HAGAR AND ISHMAEL IN THE WILDERNESS:
Hagar ran out of water and distanced herself the length of a bow’s arc. God then heard the cries of ishmael and sent an angel.
Why did God not hear the cries of the mother, only the child?
Must a desperate mother distance herself in order to save her child’s life?
Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses asks, Is it any wonder that Ishmael grew to be a bowman, forever overcoming that distance?
Too often, worldwide and in the US, a birthmother has little or no option but to separate from her child. For example, in many places laws and customs punish and ostracise a woman (and her child) who has given birth without being married. In this case, even as we fight for more compassionate and just systems, for ways for birthmothers to raise their children when so desired, the children who do not yet benefit from these changes must be loved and raised, so that they have support in overcoming that distance.
(טו) וַיִּכְל֥וּ הַמַּ֖יִם מִן־הַחֵ֑מֶת וַתַּשְׁלֵ֣ךְ אֶת־הַיֶּ֔לֶד תַּ֖חַת אַחַ֥ד הַשִּׂיחִֽם׃ (טז) וַתֵּלֶךְ֩ וַתֵּ֨שֶׁב לָ֜הּ מִנֶּ֗גֶד הַרְחֵק֙ כִּמְטַחֲוֵ֣י קֶ֔שֶׁת כִּ֣י אָֽמְרָ֔ה אַל־אֶרְאֶ֖ה בְּמ֣וֹת הַיָּ֑לֶד וַתֵּ֣שֶׁב מִנֶּ֔גֶד וַתִּשָּׂ֥א אֶת־קֹלָ֖הּ וַתֵּֽבְךְּ׃ (יז) וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע אֱלֹהִים֮ אֶת־ק֣וֹל הַנַּעַר֒ וַיִּקְרָא֩ מַלְאַ֨ךְ אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶל־הָגָר֙ מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לָ֖הּ מַה־לָּ֣ךְ הָגָ֑ר אַל־תִּ֣ירְאִ֔י כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֧ע אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶל־ק֥וֹל הַנַּ֖עַר בַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הוּא־שָֽׁם׃ (יח) ק֚וּמִי שְׂאִ֣י אֶת־הַנַּ֔עַר וְהַחֲזִ֥יקִי אֶת־יָדֵ֖ךְ בּ֑וֹ כִּֽי־לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל אֲשִׂימֶֽנּוּ׃ (יט) וַיִּפְקַ֤ח אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֖רֶא בְּאֵ֣ר מָ֑יִם וַתֵּ֜לֶךְ וַתְּמַלֵּ֤א אֶת־הַחֵ֙מֶת֙ מַ֔יִם וַתַּ֖שְׁקְ אֶת־הַנָּֽעַר׃ (כ) וַיְהִ֧י אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הַנַּ֖עַר וַיִּגְדָּ֑ל וַיֵּ֙שֶׁב֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וַיְהִ֖י רֹבֶ֥ה קַשָּֽׁת׃
(15) When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, (16) and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. (17) God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. (18) Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” (19) Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink. (20) God was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became a bowman.
SEPARATION AND CREATION:
Every adoption has begun with a sad, sad separation. Given that, we can place ourselves, and our children, in the story of separation, loss and recreation that are inherent in God’s making of the world.
(ד) אָמַר רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה, לֹא פֵּרְשׁוּ הַמַּיִם הַתַּחְתּוֹנִים מִן הָעֶלְיוֹנִים אֶלָּא בִּבְכִיָּה…
Rabbi Berechiah said, The lower waters did not separate from the upper sphere without weeping. (“Woe to us,” they cried. “For we were separated from our Creator!”)
NACHMAN OF BRATZLAV ON FEAR:
How do we venture into the unknown for the sake of love?
Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, The Seven Beggars: “…at one end of the earth there is the fountain that flows from [a] rock on [a] mountaintop, and at the other end is the earth’s heart. And the heart desires the mountain spring; it remains in its place far at the other end of the earth, but it is filled with an unutterable longing, it burns with an endless desire for the distant fountain of water. …Because of its great longing, it sometimes tries to go to the fountain, but if it goes nearer to the foot of the mountain it can no longer see the spring on the top of the mountain, and so it must remain far away, for only from a distance may a mountain peak be seen….
SIDDUR, YOTZER OR: Rabbi Lisa Godstein’s interpretation of Yotzer Or describes the power of love for becoming fully human — something every child deserves.
- Do you believe in destiny? What does that mean?
- Does the role of destiny help shape your experience of God?
- What does that mean in terms of the birth/first parent(s)?
- Do you use stories and myths in this way?
- How important is it that they be (largely) drawn from a particular tradition?
- Is that a paradox?
- Is tradition undermined or enriched by seeing it a constellation of stories, rituals and values – but not fact or history?
- Do any of these speak to the way you experience your own identity?
- How might they strengthen – or undermine – each other?What does that ending mean to you?What is the interplay between the life path of first/birth parent(s) and the life path of adoptive parents?
(ג). כֻּלָּם אֲהוּבִים. כֻּלָּם בְּרוּרִים. כֻּלָּם גִּבּורִים. וְכֻלָּם עושים בְּאֵימָה וּבְיִרְאָה רְצון קונָם.
“When you feel loved you have greater clarity and from that clarity you can act with courage and humility according to your Creator’s will.” Rabbi Lisa Goldstein on Yotzer Or
BOOK GROUP / ADULT EDUCATION GUIDE
My book is the story of my family, focused on the adoption of our older son. It is also the story of how, by becoming a family through adoption, Judaism became an authentic part of my life. Also, if you are interested, here is a link to an interview about the book on NPR’s Fresh Air.
Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World
Rabbi Susan Silverman
Making Our Way through God’s Beautiful, Broken World
Susan experienced loss, the tenuousness of life and the brokenness of the world through the death of her brother, the uprootedness of a foster child, her parents’ divorce, and the immense loss suffered by children and birth parents inherent to adoption.
She dealt with that loss through a variety of means, including: Bargaining – Denial-Acceptance – Opportunity – Desperation – Fear -Spiritual/Traditional Context
- Which ones strike you as mature? Immature? Empowering?
- What models resonate with you – for better or worse?
- Do you recognize any of these ways of deal with loss from your life of from the lives of people you know? What did you learn from it?
- How is adoption a microcosm of the beauty and brokenness?
In adopting Adar, Susan sensed that her destined son was out there and she needed to chart a course to him. But when she adopted Zamir, she took the spiritual tools of her life and let them lead where they may, to any child who may be found.
Who is a Jew? Or: What is a Jew?
The book presents a selection of possibilities of what it means to be a Jew including:
Bloodline – Conversion – Belief – Rituals – Community – Metaphors/Paradigms
Susan and Yosef did not hold an Orthodox conversion for their sons.
- What would you have done?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages involved?
Relationship with God, History and Tradition
Susan’s relationship with God deepened over time while becoming less literal.
Susan believes that “knowing” God is a form of idolatry because holding God’s image, or even God’s will, in your mind is as literal as holding God in your hands.
- Is that counter to religion as you understand it?
- What might happen to the world if we started looking at our religions as metaphors, rituals and values to orient ourselves in an unknowable world and not as “true”?
Language and Names
Susan used Jewish stories, biblical and rabbinic, such as Creation, the Binding of Isaac, Jacob’s wrestling, Exodus from Egypt and standing at Sinai, Moses smashing the tablets to provide a framework to derive meaning for her family’s experience.
Growing up, the song Help Me Rhonda would sometimes play in Susan’s head. She hoped to instill something with more meaning for her kids to “hear” during tough times, like Kol HaOlam Kulo, “the world is a very narrow bridge and the important thing is to be unafraid”.
- When things are difficult in your life, what do you “hear”?
- Does it make a difference if your “song” is part of a larger framework and/or touches on something you understand as an eternal truth?
Susan and Yosef gave their sons new names. Adar had the name Daniel until he was nine-months-old and Zamir had the name Kedir until he was over four-years-old.
- Was this okay to do?
- Was it unfair?
- What purpose might it serve?
The last sentences of the book are a quote from Psalms: “From the narrow place I call to God. God answers me from the expanse.”
Memory and Empathy
One of the powerful experiences of family life is having shared memories – even if those past experiences impacted us differently. Orphans are not likely to have anyone who share their early memories.
- How do you imagine that affects the act of remembering?
Susan wondered if knowing someone is essential to loving them.
- What do you think?
Susan wrote of her infant brother’s death when she was two-years-old. She does not remember him in her mind, but his death is in her bones.
- Have you or someone you know had an experience like that?
- What has the impact of that experience been?
The heart of this story is adoption.
- Throughout the book, how did you feel about adoption?
- Did you find yourself imagining the adoption experience from various points of view (child, adoptive parents, birth parents)?
- Did your sense of and assumptions about adoption change after reading Casting Lots?
- Susan is a rabbi, author, teacher, activist and founder of Second Nurture: Every Child Deserves a Family — And a Community (communityadoption.org). She is an advocate for asylum seekers and of liberal Judaism in Israel. She is the author of Jewish Family & Life: Traditions, Holiday and Values for Today’s Parents and Children and of Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful Broken World and has appeared in, among others, The Boston Globe, The Forward, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, YNet, The New York Times, NPR, and ABC’s The View and can be followed at rabbisusansilverman.com and @rabbasusan.Thank you to Second Nurture’s donors, board members, advisors, staff, volunteers and pilot communities who have made Second Nurture possible!