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Home » B'Midbar Parshah, Education, Family Life, Questions of Ethics

B’Midbar: The Jewish Father

Submitted by on May 17, 2009 – 4:00 amNo Comment | 3,150 views

And The Mothers?

When the census was taken in the desert, families were recorded by the names of their fathers. Now that’s unfair! Who insisted on having these children in Egypt over their husbands’ protests? Who defied Pharaoh’s decree and risked their lives to carry, birth and nurse these children? Now that the children are to be counted the mothers are no longer noteworthy? (1)

In truth no one needs a census to identify his mother. Every child knows his mother! She raised him, nursed him, nurtured and loved him. The question is who is the father? How many children can answer that question with certainty? For that we need a census.

Family Values

There was hardly an Egyptian that could answer that question with confidence. Their women were promiscuous; even the married ones could not identify the fathers of their children. (2) Men fathered children in multiple families and women gave birth to children from multiple fathers. Fathers refused to care for or claim kinship to children that might be theirs and children never cared to bond with fathers that might not be theirs. The entire family unit disintegrated, dragging family values down with it.

When Jews established their national identity they sought to distinguish themselves from their former captors. Jewish mothers, no matter how much credit they deserved, did not raise their children by themselves. The Jewish family unit was cohesive; mothers and fathers begot children. Together. No, it was not important to point out who the mothers were; children could tell their mothers from a mile away. But it was important for all and sundry to shout from the rooftops that Jewish children could identify their fathers with confidence.

Imagine that. There was not a single promiscuous mother or a single father persronal freedom - innerstreamwho could not embrace his children with confidence in a nation of several million. Now that’s saying something. (3)

Knowing and Understanding

The explanation answers the question, but does not satisfy the seeking mind. Family cohesion is the building block of nations. Notwithstanding Egypt’s glaring lack thereof one would expect this standard from all nations. Egypt was hardly the moral benchmark for nations to surpass and exceeding the Egyptian denominator was hardly a ringing endorsement. There must therefore be a deeper layer of meaning to the identification of Jewish children by their fathers.

Mothers and fathers parent in different ways. Mothers provide the nurturing love that builds confidence and enables personalities to flourish. Fathers provide the mentoring that direct our path and show us right from wrong.

Both parents contribute to the child’s burgeoning sense of morality. Mothers teach us to strive for goodness; to desire it and to cherish it. Fathers instruct us to adhere to moral standards whether we like it or not. When the child rebels or demands a reason a mother patiently explains whereas a father, who is apt to respond with, “Because I told you so,” sternly instructs; (4)

Children need both. They need to know that curiosity is normal and that answers are available to those who seek it. But they also need to know that moral standards are not negotiable irrespective of our understanding. The young cannot expect to understand everything. Even adults don’t understand the reason for every moral standard. That is why we call them imperatives not philosophies. On the deepest level we don’t embrace morality because we understand their importance, but because we know it to be the right path.

Reason and Faith

This mother and father model is reflected in our relationship with G-d. There are philosophers and there are believers. Both can accept the existence of G-d, but one believes it, the other is convinced of it. The certainty experienced by the believer cannot be emulated by the philosopher. Explanations answer questions; they don’t establish truths. Philosophy posits theories, but cannot conclude with absolute finality; at least not the kind of finality that the believer experiences in faith. Every argument spawns a counter argument; every theory a counter theory.

Judaism requires both; we are instructed to know of G-d’s existence and to believe in it. Knowledge denotes an understanding that arises from study. We are meant to be curious; to pose questions and seek answers. But we are also meant to accept G-d’s existence on faith. Reason has its limits; it can only carry us so far. But where reason ends, faith must begin. At the intersection of reason and faith, a Jew is required to take the leap.

After all our questions are answered and our reservations resolved we are expected to be absolutely certain of G-d’s existence.  Reason cannot give rise to such certainty. It can remove the obstacle of doubt, but it cannot spawn conviction. Conviction arises only from faith. (5)

The Father

The census that was taken in the desert trumpeted the distinction between Egyptian and Jew. The distinction was certainly not to be found in reason; ancient Egypt was renowned for its philosophy and academic achievements. What sets the Jew apart is the certitude that arises from faith.

Morality founded on reason is subject to reversal. Faith based morality is not reversible. The Egyptians found logical justifications for the torture they inflicted on their Jewish slaves. They were not amoral; they were simply convinced that their treatment of the Jews was just. The Jew vowed to be different. It would not be enough to understand the basis for morality; to be a Jew it would be necessary to accept it on faith; faith in the supreme authority that is responsible for the moral code. (6)

To underscore this distinction they were instructed to identify themselves according to their fathers. The loving nurture that we receive from our mothers does not establish the backbone of commitment. For that we require the firm, no nonsense, instruction received from our fathers. (7)


  1. See Rashi’s commentary on Exodus 38:8.
  2. See Rashi’s commentary on Exodus 12:30.
  3. See
    B’er Mayim Chayim on Numbers 1:2. There was one notable exception,
    Shlomit Bat Divri. See Levititcus 24: 11. See also Rashi’s commentary
  4. Of
    course there are exceptions to every rule, but it is true that the
    mother’s normative parenting model is softer and more patient than that
    of the father’s.
  5. The
    physical world mirrors the spiritual world. The concept of father and
    mother in the spiritual world is wisdom and understanding. Just like
    the father produces sperm that the mother accepts into her womb where a
    fetus is developed so does our faculty of wisdom produce a kernel of
    wisdom that is absorbed by our faculty of understanding where it is
    examined and analyzed till the kernel is understood. Understanding
    denotes mastery whereas wisdom denotes humility; a wise person
    intuitively knows the correct path almost as if it has been telegraphed
    to him from above. Humility is the vehicle through which wisdom is
    received. This is why the mother is synonymous with acceptance that
    arises from understanding whereas the father is synonymous with
    conviction that flows from faith. See Sefer Mamarim Bamidbar, 5715, 291.
  6. In
    our time this was evidenced by Germany’s slide into the abyss of
    immorality. A nation of culture, art and education devolved in no time
    into savagery. Education alone cannot guarantee morality because reason
    based morality is always subject to reversal.
  7. See Ohr Hatorah, Bamidbar, p. 40.

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