Birthrate challenges and demographics
Parasha in daily life - Parashat Shemot - Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald - 5780
Our Parasha opens a new era in the history of the Jewish people. The beginning of the exile of Egypt which was part of the Divine plan that was told to our father Abraham in the "Covenant between the Pieces" - בִּבְרִית בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים. In our Parasha we also read about the reality of how this actually happened. On what caused Pharaoh to change the policy toward the people of Israel, Yosef's people, who saved Egypt from failure.
The main cause was the Egyptians' fear of the natural birthrate of the Jewish people:
וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל פָּר֧וּ וַֽיִּשְׁרְצ֛וּ וַיִּרְבּ֥וּ וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ בִּמְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ אֹתָֽם׃
"But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them". (Shmot 1:7).
A new king came to Egypt who did not know Yosef and did not show to his people any appreciation. This king considered the natural multiplicity of the people of Israel a threat to the demographic balance and Egyptian hegemony:
וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֶל־עַמּ֑וֹ הִנֵּ֗ה עַ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רַ֥ב וְעָצ֖וּם מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃ הָ֥בָה נִֽתְחַכְּמָ֖ה ל֑וֹ פֶּן־יִרְבֶּ֗ה וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תִקְרֶ֤אנָה מִלְחָמָה֙ וְנוֹסַ֤ף גַּם־הוּא֙ עַל־שֹׂ֣נְאֵ֔ינוּ וְנִלְחַם־בָּ֖נוּ וְעָלָ֥ה מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
"And he said to his people: Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (ibid 9-10)
Pharaoh formulates a plan for the enslavement of the Jewish people in hard work, to restrain his steps
וַיָּשִׂ֤ימוּ עָלָיו֙ שָׂרֵ֣י מִסִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן עַנֹּת֖וֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם...
"So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor…" (ibid 11).
However, it did not affect natality:
וְכַאֲשֶׁר֙ יְעַנּ֣וּ אֹת֔וֹ כֵּ֥ן יִרְבֶּ֖ה וְכֵ֣ן יִפְרֹ֑ץ …
"But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out…" (ibid 12).
Therefore, he decreed to limit birth:
וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת... בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן֙ אֶת־הָֽעִבְרִיּ֔וֹת וּרְאִיתֶ֖ן עַל־הָאָבְנָ֑יִם אִם־בֵּ֥ן הוּא֙ וַהֲמִתֶּ֣ן אֹת֔וֹ וְאִם־בַּ֥ת הִ֖יא וָחָֽיָה׃
"The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives… “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” (ibid 15-16).
Thanks to the resourcefulness of the Hebrew midwives, the move was unsuccessful, and Pharaoh exacerbated the decrees on the births:
אמר ר"י בר' חנינא שלש גזירות גזר בתחילה אם בן הוא והמתן אותו ולבסוף כל הבן הילוד היאורה תשליכוהו ולבסוף אף על עמו גזר
"The Gemara returns to the discussion of the bondage in Egypt. “And Pharaoh charged all his people, "Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, says further: He decreed three decrees. Initially, he commanded the midwives only with regard to Jewish infants: “You shall look upon the stones. If it be a son, then you shall kill him; but if it be a daughter, then she shall live” (Shmot 1:16). And afterward, he decreed with regard to the Jewish infants: “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river” (Shmot 1:22). And ultimately, he decreed even on his own nation that Egyptian infant boys should be cast into the river as well" (Sotah 12a)
The decrees had an impact, the mere existence of the families endangered, fearing the birth of children whose fate will be death:
עמרם גדול הדור היה כיון (שראה שאמר) פרעה הרשע כל הבן הילוד היאורה תשליכוהו אמר לשוא אנו עמלין עמד וגירש את אשתו עמדו כולן וגירשו את נשותיהן
"Amram, the father of Moses, was the great man of his generation. Once he saw that the wicked Pharaoh said: “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive” (Shmot 1:22), he said: We are laboring for nothing by bringing children into the world to be killed. Therefore, he arose and divorced his wife. All others who saw this followed his example and arose and divorced their wives" (Sotah ibid).
Miriam's resourcefulness and dedication brought about change:
אמרה לו בתו אבא קשה גזירתך יותר משל פרעה שפרעה לא גזר אלא על הזכרים ואתה גזרת על הזכרים ועל הנקיבות ...
"His daughter, Miriam, said to him: Father, your decree is more harsh for the Jewish people than that of Pharaoh, as Pharaoh decreed only with regard to the males, but you decreed both on the males and on the females. And now no children will be born. (ibid)
And then the birth continued, and Moshe, the Savior of Israel, was born.
During the despairing bondage, the women took on the heavy burden of continuing natality:
בשכר נשים צדקניות שהיו באותו הדור נגאלו ישראל ממצרים ...ובאות ושופתות שתי קדירות אחת של חמין ואחת של דגים... ומוליכות אצל בעליהן לשדה ומרחיצות אותן וסכות אותן ומאכילות אותן ומשקות אותן ונזקקות להן בין שפתים ... וכיון שמתעברות באות לבתיהם..."
"In the merit of the righteous women that were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt. He tells of their righteous actions: At the time when these women would go to the river to draw water, the Holy One, Blessed be He, would materialize for them small fish that would enter into their pitchers, and they would therefore draw pitchers that were half filled with water and half filled with fish. And they would then come and place two pots on the fire, one pot of hot water for washing their husbands and one pot of fish with which to feed them. And they would then take what they prepared to their husbands, to the field, and would bathe their husbands and anoint them with oil and feed them the fish and give them to drink and bond with them in sexual intercourse between the sheepfolds, i.e., between the borders and fences of the fields, and when these women would become pregnant, they would come back to their homes". (Sotah 11b)
Then and now, birth and demographics have a crucial weight on determining the future of cultures, societies, countries, and the entire world. Their influence is even greater than the influence of worldviews and opinions, especially in the democratic Western world where the size of a particular population directly affects its electoral power and influence in the legislature and government.
The frame of the family unit is one of the most challenging frameworks in the post-modern era. The postmodern argument to any sacred value has not even missed the basic framework of human existence. The feminist revolution and female desire for career and self-realization are sometimes seen as contradictory to the demands of family life and child rearing. The classic frame of the family that has a father and mother, is up against a postmodern controversy that legitimizes a family format that does not have the potential of natural childbearing.
There are also those who appeal against the natural maternal instinct that seeks realization in the form of motherhood and birth. As a result, there are societies in the Western world with negative demographics, causing them to become demographically and economically smaller, and their geo-strategic influence is dwindling.
Faced with these trends, every couple has the challenge of making the right choices, on how, when and where they want to raise a family and bring children into the world, hence reflecting their priorities in choosing the goals of their lives.