When I was younger, I used to be an astronaut. Not a full time astronaut, it was more of a part time gig. Or maybe just a little bit of the time. Like when my parents would load up the whole family in the station wagon and drive from Cleveland to Baltimore.
You see, astronauts are packed into very cramped quarters, and they look out from their windows at a world rapidly moving away from them. My siblings and I were also packed into very cramped quarters in the rear-facing back bench of the station wagon, and we too looked out from our windows at a world rapidly moving away from us.
Our family was blessed with many children, and many children come along with much luggage. Many children and much luggage combined create very little space. So by the time we pulled out of 27201 Tremaine Dr to embark on any of our road trips, there were suitcases and bags packed everywhere — on our laps, in between our feet, and anywhere else we weren’t. To help us appreciate spending 12 hours in this condition, my inventive mom told us we were astronauts.
She also taught us how to play the Geography game, the license plate game, and dozens of other games that occupy the brain while the rest of your body is immobile. (If the US Guvmint really did put hearing devices in all our cars, this is what they would have heard. “Alaska! Uh… Alabama! Um… Antartica! Aww…. Arkansas! Umm… Washington! No, Leiby, Arkansas ends with an S! Nu uh! Yu huh! Hey that hurt! I’m telling Mommy on you!)
This all took place in the 80’s, when the USA was in the height of the Cold War. Every station wagon was really just a tank in disguise. If the Soviets ever invaded the heartland, all the US had to do was pop turrets onto the millions of hulking station wagons dotting the land, and they had their artillery divisions all battle ready.
Our tank was a navy blue Ford, and when fully loaded to astronaut capacity, it probably weighed twelve tons. It guzzled gas like Uncle Howie guzzles Smirnoff, fast enough to ensure we stopped frequently at rest stops for fill ups and astronaut re-acclimation. We always stopped in Breezewood, PA, and I can still remember the bright orange roof of the Howard Johnson, and the sad two inch brown shag carpet inside.
Ah… you can’t be an astronaut forever, but the memories never die!
These days, I’m no longer an astronaut, and with the demise of the Cold War, the station wagon has thankfully almost entirely disappeared from American roads. But now we have minivans, and thank G-d we have a good number of children, and I’m sure you remember the equation “Lots of children + Much Luggage = Very Little Space” so we load our minivan to the gills. Under my wife’s careful watch, we load 187 cubic feet of cargo into a minivan with a cargo capacity of 130 cubic feet. By the time we’re done, each child only has a range of motion of eight inches (much more than I ever got!).
But my kids don’t care about astronauts, and they’re not all of the geography game age just yet, so keeping them happy on the road is not a simple task. There’s only so long coloring books and Dora the Explorer will carry them. Loading them up on sweets backfires when they come down from the sugar buzz, and about six hours into the trip the van starts emitting that not so subtle eau de road-trip-with-lots-of-kids fragrance. And I start to lose my marbles. Every time I hear, “Can I get another snack bag?” one marble rolls out. When I get the, “How much longer till we get there?” two or three slip away. But when I hear the dreaded “DAAAAADDDYY, I NEEEED TO GO TO THE BATHROOM!!!” whole platoons of marbles escape in a rush.
In the last few months, my family logged thousands of miles in that minivan, some spent cruising down the open road, some spent crawling through gridlock. We spent some hours in complete serenity, but too many hours in utter chaos. The baby’s shrill cries fill the minivan; you’ve already tried every trick you know, but he doesn’t care. The siblings are up to World War IX, this one being fought over who gets the purple Sippy cup. We spent our vacation time in three places, which meant that the joys of driving were punctuated with endless packing, loading, unloading, packing, loading, unloading, packing, loading unloading.
Our family trips should confirm the research: scientific research indicates that having children will not make you a happier person, will likely decrease your marital satisfaction, increase your depression, and make you an angrier person. We don’t need any scientific research to show you that having children lowers your levels of disposable income, but CNN Money reports that the cost of raising a child to 18 (not including any college costs) in a middle-income family has risen 40% in the last decade to a whopping $226,920!
The data shows clearly that marriage does increase happiness, but children? No go.. A headline from the The Daily Telegraph in the UK sums up the feeling of the scientific community: “Marriage without children the key to bliss!.” If we had no children, we could have driven to Connecticut, Boston, and Upstate NY in a comfortable, clean, and quiet car, or for that matter we could have flown first class with all the money we wouldn’t have spent on food, clothes, diapers, summer camp etc.! My wife and I could have gone to museums by day and to avant garde restaurants at night instead of schlepping our kids through a crowded pizza shop and trying to get everyone to bed at 7:30! Our vacation would look totally different, wouldn’t it?
The question is so compelling that today we have all sorts of research trying to understand how people delude themselves into having children, which seems to be such an empirically bad choice,!
In this week’s Parsha, we read: “And G-d blessed Noah and his sons, and He said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’” (Genesis, 9:1) How was this a blessing? Based on all that we know today about having children, it sounds more like an order!
But perhaps there is a different way to look at this complex issue. If someone has children because they are expecting to get happiness, marital satisfaction, and serenity out of it, they will probably be disappointed. Children are not a well from which to draw the things we look for in life. The reason we should be having children is in order to give, not take.
We are created in G-d’s image, the pinnacle act of G-d’s six days of creation. We too can create man! G-d created the world not because he was looking for something. G-d had no needs; He wasn’t looking for marital satisfaction, happiness, or serenity. He was just looking to give.
When we have children for the same reason, because we just want to give, to bring a new neshama into the world and try to give it every opportunity to grow and shine, the whole experience is entirely different. If we start the process of having children by looking forward to giving throughout the whole experience, including changing diapers, warming bottles, and as strange as it sounds, being kept up at night, having children can be much more rewarding. If we know that this is what life is all about, trying to find the giver inside of us, not the taker, we appreciate even the challenging parts of having children.
The data backs this up as well. Gallup has been running a poll tracking the well being of Americans, interviewing over 1,000 people each day. The people with the highest reported well-being in the entire US are very observant Jews, the same people who also happen to have a birth rate way above the US average. This indicates clearly that despite all the negative research, people can have many children and come out with the highest well being! It really all depends on how we view children — as a giving opportunity, or an investment in our future.
The ability to have children is a blessing, the blessing of giving. And when I danced on Simchat Torah with my 3 year old son on my shoulders, when I helped my 6 year old shake the lulav in the Succah, when my 9 year old lovingly rocked my infant to sleep, I felt like an astronaut, somewhere up on cloud nine, looking at the beautiful world glowing beneath me.
Parsha Dvar Torah
These are the offspring of Noach. Noach was a righteous man, flawless in his generation; Noach walked with El-him. Noach fathered three sons, Sheim, Cham and Yafes. (Gen. 6:9-10)
The Torah begins Parshas Noach by introducing Noach and his family, the people who would survive the Great Flood and repopulate earth. However, the wording seems a bit strange. In Biblical Hebrew the word aileh – “these are,” is an exclusionary phrase. What is the Torah coming to exclude when it says these are the offspring of Noach, who else might I have thought would be his offspring?
In the answer to this question lies the key difference between Noach and the patriarchs. While Noach was a righteous man, he is not considered one of our great leaders and didn’t merit becoming a patriarch. Noach did what was right, but he didn’t concern himself with the welfare of those around him. The opposite of this approach was that of Avraham, the first of the patriarchs. In next week’s portion, G-d tells Avraham to leave his birthplace and set out to a place which would be more conducive to spiritual growth. In describing the journey, the Torah tells us, “Avram took his wife Sarai, Lot, his brother’s son, all the possessions they had acquired, and the soul that they had made in Charan, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan.” (Gen. 12:5)
What or who were the souls they made in Charan? Did Avraham have a soul factory with his wife, where they made souls (if there is such a thing, I would love to buy some extra souls for some of my professors from grad school, since I am quite certain they have no soul of their own)? Rashi explains that these were the people that Avraham and his wife Sara converted while living in Charan. When Avraham found the ultimate truth, which was known to almost no one else in his time, he didn’t simply keep it to himself. Rather, he tried to teach all of humanity about the new monotheistic understanding he had reached.
Avraham and Sara were rewarded by having the Torah call the converts that they helped create “the souls that they made in Charan.” The Torah recognizes that when one instills spirituality into someone else they are, in a sense, similar to a parent. One type of parent gives people their physical life, while the other type gives them their spiritual life. We see that Avraham felt a parental concern even for the sinners of his generation by the way he prays, beseeches, and entreats G-d on behalf of the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorra, asking that they not be wiped out. A person like Avraham, while only having a few biological children, has thousands of spiritual offspring.
Noach, on the other hand, didn’t pray that the people of his generation not get wiped out in the Great Flood. Nor do we find that he worked with them to try to turn them into true penitents who would merit to survive the Flood along with him and his family. For this reason, the Torah tells us, “these are the offspring of Noach” highlighting a deficiency – Noach only had the biological children that the Torah continues to list, not the numerous spiritual offspring he could have had.
The Sages tell us that one must always ask himself, “When will my actions reach the actions of my forefathers?” One of the important ways in which we should emulate our patriarchs is by feeling a sense of responsibility for others, even sinners. Those that we can influence for the good, we should, and those that we can’t, we should pray for, asking that they repent and become good people. In this way, when the time comes for us to take leave of this good green earth, we will leave behind offspring too numerous to count!
This week’s parsha talks mostly about the Great Flood. The basic idea behind this cataclysmic event was that mankind had had such a negative effect on the earth that a complete overhaul was necessary. G-d returned the earth to its most primitive state, and the few survivors were able to rebuild on a clean slate. If they had tried to program the new world order on top of all the existing filth, immorality, and depravity, it would have been nearly impossible to succeed, so instead G-d washed the world clean, and let them paint on a fresh canvas. The opening verses of this Parsha express that concept, while also teaching us another important lesson.
These are the offspring of Noach. Noach was a righteous man, flawless in his generation; Noach walked with El-him. Noach fathered three sons, Sheim, Cham and Yafes. The earth was corrupt before El-him, and the earth was filled with violent crime. G-d saw the earth and beheld that it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth. G-d said to Noach, The end of all flesh has come before Me. The earth is filled with violent crime because of them, and so I will destroy them with the earth. (Gen 6:9-13)
One lesson that is not readily apparent without the benefits of Rashi’s wisdom is the explanation of the first two verses. It says, “these are the offspring of Noach” but then, before mentioning his offspring, the Torah tells us that Noach was a righteous man. How did that get stuck in there? Rashi explains that the primary offspring of a person are his actions and the effects they have on others. His children are certainly important, and he can have a powerful positive effect on them but, ultimately, what he bequeaths to the world are his actions not those of his children.
G-d commanded Noach to build the ark a hundred and twenty years in advance of the flood. He did this in hope that people would ask, “Hey Noach, what is this woodcraft project you’ve been working on for the last eighty years?” and Noach would explain to them that earth was about to become a really wet place for a while due to man’s evil actions. This would hopefully inspire the people to repent. However, in typical bad-people fashion, they instead chose to mock Noach and tell him that if he dared try to enter the ark, they would break his 120-year project and then kill him (see, I told you they were bad guys).
The ark was pretty big, about 600 feet long, 100 feet wide (or, as you yachters would say, “it had a beam of 100 feet”), and 60 feet tall, 22 of which were below the water line. Despite the large dimensions of the ark, it was a massive miracle that Noach was able to fit thousand upon thousands of animals into this area. The ark was split into 3 floors, waste on bottom, animals in the middle, and humans on top. It had a light source which some say was a skylight, while others posit was a special luminescent stone.
When the time for the flood came, animals starting miraculously trekking to the ark from all corners of the world. G-d commanded Noach to take a male and female from every non-kosher species and seven pairs from every kosher species. The ark would not allow any species that had mated with other species to enter (some say that this is when dinosaurs died out). When the rain started coming down thick and fast and the aforementioned bad guys came to stop Noach from entering the ark, G-d set up a ring of lions and bears around the ark preventing anyone from getting near it. Check. Mate.
For forty days and nights the flood waters raged, with rain falling heavily from heaven, and underwater boiling springs erupting and spewing out steaming sulfuric matter from below. The waters came down until the highest point on earth was thirty feet below the water line. Then, after the forty days, the waters stopped coming down and up, but the existing water stayed put for another 150 days. The waters then slowly started receding. Noach sent out a raven to see if there was any dry land, but the bird didn’t even check, he just flew around the ark, afraid that someone was going to steal his mate. Next, Noach sent out a dove three times. The first time he came back empty handed, the second time he brought with him an olive branch, showing that the water level had dropped substantially, and the third time he stayed out, confirming that there was dry land once again. Soon after that, exactly a year after the flood began, Noach left the ark with his wife, his three children, their wives, and all the animals.
When they left the ark, G-d gave them a blessing that they be fruitful and multiply, to refill the now desolate world. They immediately brought offerings to G-d. Then, tragedy struck. Noach planted a vineyard, made wine, got drunk, and fell asleep in an uncovered position. One of his sons, Cham, debased his father in his nakedness, and then went out to tell his other brothers. Shem enlisted Yafes, and together they covered their father, while looking the other way, so as not to see their father in a compromised position. Noach awoke, and understanding what happened, gave Cham a severe curse, and gave Shem and Yafes blessings.
From Noach and his family sprouted all of the nations of the earth, and the Torah goes into great length telling over the genealogy of Noach’s children and grandchildren, as each of these grandchildren would be the father of a nation that would arise later in history.
Humans simply don’t seem to learn their lesson. Only a few generations after the Great Flood, under the leadership of the wicked king Nimrod of Babel, mankind devised a plan to take G-d out of the picture. They attempted to build a tower that would reach the heavens itself, so they could then challenge G-d, and chase Him away. These people, although wicked, had one merit – they presented a united front, there was no bickering and arguing between them. However, since this unison was being used for an evil purpose, G-d punished them by introduced the concept of language to mankind. Suddenly, people were speaking 70 different languages! As you can imagine, the building of the Tower of Babel went downhill quickly (I speak the same language as my contractor yet I never feel I can get exactly what I want over to him, imagine if we didn’t speak the same language!). From Babel, the people began to spread out to all four corners of the earth, where they are until this very day!
Quote of the week: The things you regret the most are the things you didn’t do. ~ Adaptation of quote by Michael Cortiz
Random Fact of the Week: If you shake a can of mixed nuts, the larger nuts rise to the top.
Funny Line of the Week: Flying is simple, just throw yourself at the ground, and miss.
Have an Exhilarating Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham
 Nattavudh Powdthavee (2009) Think having children will make you happy?
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 Rafael Di Tella et. al. (2001) The Macroeconomics of Happiness, University of Bonn ZEI Working Paper No. B3. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=285918 or doi:10.2139/ssrn.285918
 Richard P. Eibach & Steven E. Mock (2011) Idealizing Parenthood to Rationalize Parental Investments, Psychological Science, vol. 22 no. 2 203-2
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