Millions of children go to bed hungry every night, with no one to hold them as they cry themselves to sleep. There is perhaps no greater suffering than to feel unloved, unwanted, and uncared for by anyone. This is the story of the orphan.
The global population just surpassed seven billion, and concerns for the poor in a world with more limited resources than ever before must be a top priority. Perhaps the most vulnerable among us are the more than 160 million orphans who lack love, attachment, and emotional support, let alone homes. Millions of children need families, and we can all pause to consider adoption.
My wife Shoshana and I feel that as Jews and global citizens facing the realities of the 21st century, we must regard adoption as a moral imperative. It is not an easy thing to do, and there are always risks, but we are blessed with a safe home and lots of love to give. One need not be challenged with infertility to turn to adoption, nor must one be rich to consider it as an option for building a family.
The Torah strongly condones adoption. The orphan (yatom) is given priority in the sacred text along with the widow (almana) and stranger (ger) to ensure their protection (Deuteronomy 16:11 and 14, 24:19-21, 26:12-13). God is described as a “father of the fatherless” (Psalms 68:6), so to become a parent to a parentless child is to emulate the Divine.
Jewish law encourages adoption to the extent that it considers adoptive parents who care for, raise, and teach their child as the official parents. “Whoever brings up an orphan in their home, it is as though they gave birth to him.” (Sanhedrin 19b) That this approach is embraced is reflected in the practice of including foster parents’ names in a child’s halachic name, because “he who brings up a child is to be called its father, not he who gave birth.” (Exodus Rabbah 46:5)
The rabbis taught that one who rescues and raises an orphan child in one’s home fulfills a tremendous mitzva, since there is a community responsibility to support impoverished orphans. (Ketubot 50a) The Talmud holds the community responsible for the support of orphans, for finding spouses for them, and for providing them with the means to live economically independent lives. Communal funds must be allocated to support orphans. (Ketubot 67b)
We are collectively responsible to find solutions for parentless children.
We all should seek our own ways to contribute. At the least, we must find some way to love and support this population. Rambam says we must show the highest sensitivity toward orphans: “Whoever irritates them, provokes them to anger, pains them, tyrannizes over them, or causes them loss of money is guilty of a transgression.” (Mishneh Torah, De’ot 6:10) We must go beyond avoiding committing any wrong against parentless children and be sure to actively show them love and caring. The great prophet Isaiah teaches us to “defend the cause of orphans.” (Isaiah 1:17) How will each of us heed this prophetic call?
Adopting a child is not only a great kindness; there is great precedent for adoption as a model to cultivate greatness in an individual who can understand multiple worlds and identities. For example, the greatest prophet of all, Moses, was adopted when his parents couldn’t safely raise him. (Exodus 2) His multiple identities as a Hebrew and Egyptian contributed to his leadership capabilities as he possessed deep empathy toward human vulnerability. Similarly, Mordechai raised his orphaned cousin Esther, who went on to become an essential Jewish leader. The great talmudic sage Abaye often quoted wise sayings in the name of his foster mother.
Of course, adoption is not for everyone. There are serious challenges, risks, and commitments that come with such a decision, but given the realities of our over-populated world and the over-abundance of orphans, it is a decision we must all at least consider. There is perhaps nothing that causes greater damage to the soul than growing up in the world without parents, without a warm embrace at night. Every stable family should consider the opportunity to welcome the most vulnerable humans on the planet by giving homeless children a home and family.