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The Problem of Overpopulation & The Command to Procreate

The Problem of Overpopulation & The Command to Procreate


The United Nations has declared that the 7th billion person in the world was just born. Further, they have announced that since 1960, we’ve been adding a billion people to the earth every 12 to 13 years.

These unfathomable numbers are cause for significant alarm. Our rising population, nearly half already living on only $2 a day, with a very finite number of resources almost inevitably means that we will have higher rates of homelessness and poverty, more environmental problems and depleted natural resources, and more orphans and neglected uneducated children around the world.

We will need to find more care for the global poor and vulnerable, we will need to consider more alternative energies, we will need to restructure our economies of production and consumption, and we will need to assess global education and incentives for birth control. And of course, we’ll need to have faith.

We need to have faith since we have a conflicting message from our 1st mitzvah in the Torah – peru urvu – to procreate – quite simply, we are called upon as humans to populate the world to the best of our abilities. The great Prophet Yeshiyahu teaches “Lo tohu b’raah lashevet yatzara” – God created the world not to be empty but to be dwelled in!

Yet, we know that Avraham and Sarah had trouble initially fulfilling this mitzvah of peru urvu as Sarah was barren. Avraham struggled to fulfill the mitzvah of peru urvu both in procreation initially and in how he ended up treating his sons once they were born– he allowed his son Yishmael to be sent away and he almost had to kill his son Yitzchak. In both cases, God tested Avraham with the impossible: to struggle having children and then to send them both away alienating them forever.  Peru Urvu was one of the only mitzvot that had been given in the Torah thus far at the time of Avraham, and yet he struggled tragically.

Yet I would suggest that Avraham understood the core value of this mitzvah very well – to perpetuate life and to value each and every life as having infinite value. I believe he valued this due to his personal struggle with family and reproduction and due to his personal journey as an immigrant which gave him a very acute awareness of human vulnerability.

It was for this reason that he welcomed the strangers to approach his tent who were famished and in great need. It was for this reason, that he argued for the value of every life in Sodom and that they not be destroyed. Avraham truly revolutionized the world, bringing the notion of love for the stranger to the world. This was, I would suggest, the actualization of the deepest meaning of peru urvu – to give life and dignity to others.

Avraham becomes not only our model of the first Jew, and the first to enter the covenant through brit milah, but also our model for the foundation of Jewish values. G-d loved Avraham and formed a covenant with him because he and his family were “Shomru Derech Hashem Laasot Tzedakah u’Mishpat” (Genesis 18:18) – guards of the way of God to do justice in the world.

Even further, he is our model for prayer. Twice, with Avraham, we see “Va’yashkaim b’boker” – Avraham wakes up early to pray for Sodom (Genesis 19:27) and he wakes up early to fulfill the Akeidah, binding of Isaac, (Genesis 22:3). This becomes the source for our prayer for Shacharit, the morning prayer. But it is not source of “Va’yashkaim b’boker” of the Akeidah that the rabbis teach as the origin for Shacharit but the “Va’yashkaim b’boker” of Sodom (Avraham’s prayer for the salvation of the righteous in Sodom) that we learn the obligation to say our morning prayers from. This is our model for prayer (that the masses not be destroyed and that not a single innocent person on the globe be dealt with unjustly). Avraham taught us that a significant, or perhaps the most significant, aspect of prayer is the crying out for and cultivation of mercy and compassion for the vulnerable.

Avraham struggles to fulfill one mitzvah of valuing life, of procreation, but masters another, that of pleading to save the lives of innocent others. We learn that when we cannot achieve a mitzvah for whatever reason, there is always another way to achieve the core value. In life, when we cannot achieve one dream, there is another dream to be cultivated.

Tragically, there are families that break. There are businesses that go under. There are loved ones that pass. There are visions that go unrealized. But there is always another dream to reach for and there is always another calling to cultivate. But to do that we must have one absolute commitment

To hear our calling as we grow through life – we must be ourselves. We must own who we are since we are the only ones in the world who were created for our unique mission. Each of us is a partner with God in creation in our own unique way.  

In the book of Samuel (I: 17:39), David tries on Saul’s armor so that he can fight Goliath (armor made for a king) and yet David says he cannot wear it. He takes it off and goes to fight. Profoundly, David realizes that one cannot go to battle in life in someone else’s clothes. We must be ourselves if we wish to win, if we wish to prosper, if we wish to fulfill our personal destinies.  

Our individual callings may be professional or existential. The call can be a loud scream or a subtle beckon, unambiguous from the start or shrouded in uncertainty to the end. Some of us feel one clear call throughout our lives and others may experience an evolution. Each of us must find a different way to hear our names called.

The Midrash (Tanhuma Vayakel 1) teaches that each person is “called” by three names: the name given by parents (a name of essence, the name given by others (a name of relationship), and the name one comes to earn (a name of merit). Perhaps the greatest challenge of all in our lives is to choose to open ourselves to who we are and to who we can become.

We’re all aware that there are many barriers to hearing and heeding our call: the inability to sit in silence or decipher competing interests, our reliance on serendipitous fate or the failure of courage to heed the seemingly insuperable call. Ultimately no one can help us face these challenges within the vicissitudes of our daily lives but ourselves and perhaps our closest life partner. We must have the courage to remember that our callings are primarily personal and individualized. As the great Jewish psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl suggested that one should not seek the meaning of life but the meaning of one’s own life.

Life is too short to follow someone else’s dream to fulfill someone else’s mitzvah or to become a cookie-cutter Jew (living the exact same Jewish experience and vision as others around us). Our lives have purpose when we follow our spiritual callings with zealous rigor and commitment. Each of us must be prepared when we hear our own Divine call of Ayeka (where are you?) and to reply uniquely with our hineni (here I am)?

The Kotzker Rebbe explains that the most challenging test for Avraham was not leaving his native country, or sending away Ishmael, or even the binding of his son Isaac. The most challenging test for Avraham, the Kotzker explains, was to come off the mountain after the Akeidah. The Kotzker suggests that Avraham never really forgave himself for his past, he never really came off the mountain.

How many of us have never come off the mountain? When we got stuck in a rut, trapped in a failure, caught in a regret, scarred in a tragedy, we never came off that mountain. Yet when we are lost in our life path, confused about how to move forward into a next stage in life, there is always a way to come down the mountain and start again to find ourselves.

There are 7 billion people on the planet. Over-population is a big problem for us to wrestle with. Yet, we must remember that each and every one of us among these 7 billion has been given a gift, each a talent, and each a destiny. We are a complexly interconnected universe with a great collective destiny, but we cannot forget that God brings each individual into this world with infinite value, a unique purpose, and a particular calling.

A story is told of the great Chassidic master Reb Zusha of Hanipol in the 18th century, the brother of Reb Elimelech. Reb Zusha laid crying on his deathbed. His students asked him, "Rebbe, why are you so sad? After all the mitzvot and good deeds you have done, you will surely get a great reward in olam haba!" "I'm afraid!" said Zusha, "because when I get to heaven, I know God is not going to ask me 'Why weren't you more like Moshe?' or 'Why weren't you more like David HaMelech?' But I'm afraid that God will ask 'Zusha, why weren't you more like Zusha?' And then what will I say!?"

We don’t know what is coming in our lives but if we listen carefully and we stay true to the mission that we believe we have been created for, we can go forth and stay the course with confidence. 

Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” will be coming out in early 2012. 


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