A vital message: put children first

As so many young people in today’s UK lead bleak lives, our Rosh Hashanah prayers have a special resonance

By Lord Jonathan Sacks, September 17, 2009

There is one aspect of our prayers on Rosh Hashanah that is as unexpected as it is profound. The first of Tishrei is, as we say in our prayers, the anniversary of creation. Hayom harat olam: “Today, the universe was born”. Logically, therefore, the reading of the Torah should be the first chapter of Bereishit: “In the beginning, God created.” The haftarah might be Isaiah 45 with its declaration: “It is I who made the earth and created mankind upon it.”

In fact, though, we don’t do this. On the first day, we read about the birth of Isaac, and for the haftarah we say the passage about Hannah’s prayer for a child. On the second day, we read about the binding and deliverance of Isaac and, as the haftarah, we read Jeremiah 31 in which the prophet speaks of Rachel “weeping for her children”.

None of these is about creation. All four are about parents and children. Both readings for the first day are about the birth of a child. Why?

A famous Mishnah in Sanhedrin tells us that “a single life is like a universe”. Saving a life is like saving a universe. So the birth of a child is like the birth of the universe. When Jews think about the miracle of creation, we think about children. That is real spiritual insight.

At the end of his book A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking says that if we could discover the Unified Field Theory that would explain the structure of the universe, we would know “the mind of God”. From a Jewish perspective, you do not need theoretical physics to come as close as we can to the mind of God. All you need is to understand what it is to be a parent. God is our parent; we are His children. That is all we know and all we need to know about the splendour and pathos of the human situation under the sovereignty of God.

Judaism is the most child-centred of all the great faiths. Abraham was chosen to be the father of monotheism so that he would “teach his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord”. Our holiest prayer, the Shema, tells us to “teach these things diligently to your children”. When God gave the Torah to Israel, He gave it to them, said the sages, in the merit not of their ancestors but of their children.

Children have been the victims of our age. In Britain today, nearly one in two children is born to unmarried parents; 26 per cent live in lone parent households. Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe. A UNICEF survey in 2007 reported that Britain’s children are the unhappiest in the Western world. They drink and smoke more, take more drugs, have more under-age sex, are more prone to failure at school, more likely to experience violence and bullying, and suffer more unhappy relationships within and outside the home. That is a reverberating tragedy.

The message of Rosh Hashanah is that a civilisation is judged by the way it treats its children. At some stage, secular society lost sight of that truth. There is an old African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” It takes a culture to value families. It takes a moral code to strengthen marriage. Judaism survived because it never lost its love of children, and never forgot what that means by way building homes, schools and communities to pass our values on across the generations.

Nowhere is this signalled more starkly than in the story of the binding of Isaac. Through it, God tells us for all time, I do not want you to sacrifice your children. Care for them. Love them. Teach them. Hold them as your highest joy.

That is how Judaism, the West’s oldest faith, has for 4,000 years stayed young while other civilisations grew old and disappeared. Put children first. That is the message of Rosh Hashanah. We need it now.

Sir Jonathan Sacks is the Chief Rabbi. His latest book, Future Tense, is published by Hodder & Stoughton

Last updated: 1:21pm, September 17 2009