It would be a saner world if we put our children first

September 26, 2008
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 26th September 2008

As we suffer the effects of an economic downturn, spare a thought for those who have less. As we approach the Jewish New Year, with its prayers for all humanity, I think of the 72 million children throughout the world who still have no school to go to, and the 600 million people who lack basic sanitation. Thirty-three million people are living with HIV, and more than a million die of malaria every year. Almost a billion people still live on less than a dollar a day. Ten million children die before their fifth birthday, most of them from preventable diseases.

I think of children closer to home: the more than three million who are still living in poverty in this country, despite the fact that ours is the fifth-richest nation on Earth. The disadvantages that they suffer are serious and cumulative. A child born today in Didcot has a life expectancy of 82, while for one born in Middlesbrough the figure is 54. We live, economically, socially, educationally and medically, in a deeply divided world.

The Jewish New Year has long carried with it a powerful message about children. According to tradition, the festival commemorates the birth of the Universe, the anniversary of Creation. Logically, we would have expected the rabbis to have ordained that we read the first chapter of Genesis, with its opening words, “In the beginning, God created . . .”

Yet they made a different choice. We read instead of Sarah and her longing for a child, and the birth of Isaac. Then we read about Hannah and her prayer for a child, which is answered by the birth of Samuel. The reason is that, we believe, every life is like a universe. So if we seek to feel awe and wonder at the birth of the Universe, we need look no farther than the birth of a child.

Judaism is a child-centred faith, based on the covenant of marriage and the sanctity of the family. Many of our most sacred rituals take place at home. In the only place in the Bible to explain why Abraham was chosen to be the initiator of a new covenant, God says that He chose him “so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just”. Abraham was chosen not because he was a prophet, a miracle worker, or a hero, but simply to be a father. Jews and Christians pray to God as “Our father”. Parenthood is sacred because children are sacred, and because the only civilisations worthy of the name are those that put children first.

We have not always put children first in recent times. They have been the victims, in Britain, of the breakdown of marriage, the instability of families, changes in work practices, and the consumerisation of society. We still have a long way to go in making ours a child-friendly society. In February 2007 a Unicef survey of 21 industrialised nations found Britain’s children the unhappiest of all. Children are always vulnerable. They are dependent on others. They have no vote and all too little voice. There are many different interpretations of the famous passage in the Bible — we read it on the second day of the new year — about the binding of Isaac, but I read it as God’s command to Abraham, and through him to us:

Do not sacrifice your children. Isaac lives. God countermands his earlier request. Ever afterward, throughout the Bible, child sacrifice is seen as the most heinous of all sins.There are many ways in which children can become victims, but none is justified. All too often, nations are driven by a sense of the past: there are grievances to be redressed, honour to be recovered, past glory to be regained. Yet we would have a more peaceful and constructive world if we looked to the future, of which our children are the symbol and the beneficiaries.

If we put children first, we would, I believe, have a saner society and a less conflict-filled world. The rabbis said that the Universe only survives because of the innocent chatter of children. There is something innocent in the mind of a child, a vivid sense of wonder and possibility, that we should do our best to protect as long, and as equally, as possible. Let us, this year, heed the cry of a child.