In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tarfon famously states, “You are not required to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” This is my daily mantra as a mother. It is my job to teach my children the values I hold dear, to provide for them an education and a home that nurtures their bodies and their minds, and to help them grow into kind, independent and contributing members of our world. Then, at the end of the day, it is up to them to uphold these values and live up to the best of who they are.
My boys are now 10 and 11 years old. They do the dishes and their own laundry. My younger son helps cook family dinners, and my older son collects and takes out the trash and recycling. They are well on their way to finding their strengths, acknowledging their weaknesses, and becoming contributing members of our home – if not yet our world. My next steps are choosing the right overnight camps and planning bar mitzvah trips to Israel.
Yet, on the eve of new year, my life reverted quite suddenly to midnight feedings and infant car seat buckles when we welcomed a newborn baby into our home.
The call had come the day before – someone was needed, could we fill that need? But the details had remained vague, and as we lit the Shabbos candles after a long day of waiting, we remained uncertain whether or not we would be called upon. Just as I finished my blessing and kissed my boys’ heads, we saw the car pull up in front of the house.
Now, to be fair, this wasn’t completely out of the blue. We had signed up for this. Through the state, we went through multiple trainings, intense interviews and in-depth home inspections. And even before that, we had discussed it at great length. We knew there was a need and we wanted to help. In the Book of Devarim, G-d says, “There will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy brethren.” When we are able to take care of ourselves and our loved ones, we are then commanded to take care of others, because there will always be those who need taking care of.
In our land – the state of New Jersey – there are more than 6,000 children in the foster care system every year. At nearly four weeks old, Baby T had just become one of them.
We don’t know how long Baby T will be with us, but she has been in our family now for six weeks, and my boys have stepped up. They help out more around the house, knowing their father and I need all they can give. They hold the baby gently and bottle-feed her when my arms need a break. They get down on their bellies and play with her for tummy time. They wince when she cries. They giggle when she smiles. What better way to teach our children our values than by modeling for them and enlisting them.
The Talmud teaches us, “Those who have the capacity to eliminate a wrong and do not do so bear the responsibility for its consequences” (Shabbat 54b). We had the capacity to alleviate, if not eliminate, a wrong, and we could not bear the thought of the consequences of not doing so.
What we are doing does not ensure the safety and nourishment of all children. But while we are not required to finish the work, neither are we at liberty to neglect it. And I can promise you that when my children leave our home, they, too, will open their hands to the poor and needy and find the pieces of the world they can make a difference in.