The first mitzvah of which we read in the Torah, and the only mitzvah that is read on the day of Simchat Torah as we begin a new cycle of Torah reading, is the obligation of peru urevu. After creating them, Hashem instructed Adam his helpmate ((Although the instruction was given to “them,” the Mishnah (Yevamos 65b) cites a dispute over whether the obligation applies to both men and women, or to men alone. The halachah follows that opinion that the mitzvah applies to men alone.)) to “be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth, and conquer it.” ((Bereishis 1:28.)) Although it was initially issued to Adam and Chava, the instruction was was not pronounced as a personal obligation, but as applying to all of humankind. ((However, the obligation to procreate is not one of the seven Noahide mitzvos, and applies to Jews alone. We have discussed elsewhere the meaning and significance of the division between the mitzvosof Jews and those that apply to non-Jews.)) It thus remains a permanent mitzvah for all generations. ((See Rambam’s Book of Mitzvos, Positive Commandment 212; Sefer Ha-Chinuch, mitzvah no. 1.))
The Mitzvah of Procreation
As the first of mitzvos, the mitzvah of peru urevu takes on special significance. The entire Torah is so named because its most basic function is to instruct (horaah), to guide its reader in the ways of the world. Rashi writes that when the pasuk states of the exile that “there is no Torah,” ((Eichah 2:8.)) it means to lament the loss of “instruction.” As the first of all mitzvos, the instruction to procreate deserves special scrutiny.
There is no doubt as to the basic importance of this first of all mitzvos. As Sefer Ha-Chinuch explains, ((Mitzvah no. 1.)) the Torah was given to human beings, and not to angels, such that the upkeep of the entire Torah depends on the continuity of the human race. In addition, God desires the population of the world and not its desolation: “It was not created for emptiness; it was formed for inhabitance.” ((Yeshayahu 45:18.))
Yet, after short reflection we will not that the nature of the mitzvah gives rise to a patent difficulty—a question unique to the obligation to beget children. In a general sense, the mitzvos of the Torah relate to deeds. The Torah obligates us to eat matzah on Pesach, to take the Four Species during Sukkos, and to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. These, and all the other mitzvos we live by, involve well defined actions, which the Torah, as interpreted by the Oral Tradition, sets out for us to follow. Provided we know which deed (or speech, or thought) the Torah desires of us, the question of achieving themitzvah goes no further than its physical (or verbal, or mental) performance. The details of mitzvos might not always be simple, yet the basic concept of mitzvah performance leaves little room for ambiguity.
In the case of procreation, however, a basic question of performance must be raised. Unlike all other mitzvos, the mitzvah of peru urevu would not appear to instruct us in the performance of a specific action, but rather in the achievement of a result. Had there been an (explicit) Torah instruction to engage in marital relations, this question would not arise: our obligation would be to perform a well-defined act, while its result (the possible future birth of a child) is left in the hands of God. Yet, there is no such instruction, and the Torah seems to obligate us in causing a result that is not entirely in our hands—we are only able to do our part, yet the final birth of a child is in the hands of Hashem. How is this mitzvah to be understood? ((In fact, the precise definition of the mitzvah of peru urevu is a subject of dispute among authorities. Based on a Talmudic ruling stating that a convert to Judaism who has already begotten children has fulfilled the mitzvah of peru urevu, a number of authorities state that the mitzvah focuses entirely on the “result” of having children. Although the act of begetting children was performed as a non-Jew, the very fact that the convert to Judaism has children is sufficient to be considered as full performance of the mitzvah (this position is adopted by Minchas Chinuch, mitzvah 1 and 306, and by Peri Yitzchak, vol. 1, no. 42). Other authorities dispute this position, and explain that the actual mitzvah is the act of marital relations that gives rise to childbirth. Even according to the latter position, the fact that the Torah presents the mitzvah as relating to the result of begetting children, rather than the act that (potentially) leads to it, demands scrutiny.))
Disseminating the Divine Image
A clue towards understanding the matter can be gleaned from glancing at the entire instruction spoken by Hashem:
And God blessed them; and God said to them: “Be fruitful, and multiply, replenish the earth, and conquer it; and subdue the fish of the sea, and the fowl of the air, and every living thing that creeps upon the earth.”
We have already mentioned the overarching importance of procreation in ensuring the perpetual continuation of the human race. What, however, is the importance of the associated instruction to “replenish the earth,” to “conquer it,” and to have dominion over all the creatures of the world?
These extra details, which form an integral part of initial directive of procreation, indicate that the mitzvah entails more than physical reproduction. The obligation to bear children is presented as part of a broader instruction to apply the stamp of humankind wherever it may be applied. We are commanded to disseminate the human form not only be procreating, but even by conquering and ruling over the world, including all of its myriad creatures. Through populating the world every inhabited location is elevated to the level of elevation of humankind, the only creature created in the Divine Image; by extending human dominion over the animals and plants of the world—those of the sea and those of the land—even animal and plant life receive the stamp of humankind. They are bestowed with the title of “man”—just as everyday objects are called by the name of their human master.
This central theme of the mitzvah can be identified from the verse preceding it. Immediately before the instruction to procreate, the Torah proclaims that humankind was created in the Divine Image: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him.” ((Bereishis 1:27.)) Following this statement, the verse records the Divine instruction to procreate. The two are thus intertwined: The instruction to procreate is an instruction to proliferate the Divine Image, to imprint it on the face of the Divine creation that preceded the making of humankind.
It would appear that with respect to the pre-sin condition of humankind, this was to be the only (positive) mitzvah. The basic function of man—the fundamental purpose for which humankind was created—was to impart the Divine Image upon the world. The corresponding negative commandment was not to despoil the Divine Image by introducing a force of evil into his inner chambers, a force that was latent in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Together, the two mitzvos in which Adam was instructed comprised a formula of printing the Divine Image on an otherwise mundane world.
Making the Connection
The underlying theme of our own service of God, which includes the performance of all the mitzvos of the Torah, has never changed. It remains the introduction of the Divine into a mundane world—or, in perhaps more familiar terms, the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth: “to mend the world in the Kingdom of Shakai.” ((From the Aleinu prayer.)) As the verse teaches, the human glorification of Hashem is the purpose of Israel’s national creation: “This nation I have created for Myself, [in order that] My glory they shall tell.” ((Yeshayahu 43:21.)) We stand obligated, an obligation derived from our most fundamental essence, to draw the light of Hashem into the world, and to sanctify His Name.
Yet, the point we wish to accentuate is the specifically human means by which this purpose is achieved. The instruction to procreate is a directive to proliferate the human form, which is implicitly a manifestation of the Divine Image. In a post-sin world, the only way in which the pure human expression can be achieved is by following the detailed directives of the Torah. the taryag mitzvos. Yet, the fundamental expression is the same: a human manifestation that brings Divine elevation into a mundane world.
The theme described by the mitzvah of peru urevu, which is itself the theme that underlies the our service before Hashem, is thus a matter of partnership. Hashem created the world, yet left it up to humankind to draw the light of His presence therein. The very Divine Kingdom is manifest in the human king of the Davidic dynasty, a point articulated by the verse in its description how King “Shlomo sat on the throne of Hashem.” ((Divrei Hayamim I 19:23.)) Hashem created the world and all it contains, but it is up to man to infuse it with holiness, connecting the world back to its Divine source.
For Adam, the instruction of peru urevu, together with the accompanying prohibition on consuming the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, was sufficient for achieving the purpose. The Gemara teaches that the physical frame of Adam spanned from the earth to the sky; ((Chagigah 12a.)) his very proliferation connected the world to its Divine source. For us, after the diminishing that came in the wake of sin, the upkeep of the Torah—itself a “perfect” human expression—achieves the desired end.
The Mitzvah of Destiny
It is perhaps for this reason that the mitzvah of peru urevu is unique in its involving an inbuilt Divine element: Whereas all mitzvos relate to a deed (or a word, or thought), the mitzvah of peru urevurelates to a result—an achievement that is only partially in human hands.
As we have seen, the broader sense of the instruction implies not only bearing children, but even the proliferation, to the greatest possible extent, of the Divine Image. It describes a process whose climax is reached in the establishment of the Divine Kingdom on earth, the ultimate manifestation of the Divine Image in our world. Although this lofty task was handed to humankind, the heaven-earth connection cannot be forced by human deed. As both Moshe and Shlomo Hamelech learned, ((See Shabbat 30a; Vayikra Rabbah 11:6. Even after the seven days during which Moshe officiated in the Mishkan, the Shechinah did not descend until Aharon performed the service. Shlomo, in turn, had made all the necessary preparations for the Shechinah to descend into the newly constructed Mikdash, yet when he wished to bring the Aron into the Holy of Holies, he found the gates of the Mikdash sealed together. The gates only opened in the merit of his father David.)) the final enshrinement of the Shechinah is up to Hashem alone.
Whereas other mitzvos define the path by which our task is achieved, the task itself—the actual end that we are destined to reach—continues to find embodiment in the mitzvah of peru urevu. Although the Divine Image we carry has been flawed by sin, childbearing continues to be the only act in which we tangibly augment the presence of the Divine Image in the world. Each child, each new soul that enters the world, extends and deepens the manifestation of the Divine Image in the world, bringing us closer to the destiny of the ultimate revelation.
In connection with the mitzvah of peru urevu, the Gemara thus states that the Son of David will come only when “all the souls have departed the body.” ((Yevamot 62a.)) Each child is a further revelation of the Divine Image; when the revelation is complete, the Redeemer will come, and the destiny will be reached. Just as the macro-process of Divine revelation begins with human deed yet reaches its conclusion by the action of Hashem Himself, so the mitzvah of begetting children—a microcosm of the same process—must start with human action and conclude with Divine assistance.
The fulfillment of peru urevu, unlike all other mitzvos, is tangibly in the hands of the Divine—for it is the only mitzvah that relates to the actual destiny rather than the path that brings it. By representing the final destiny, the mitzvah of peru urevu defines the path itself. Father, mother, and Hashem, are partners in bringing about the new revelation of the Divine Image. ((Niddah 31a.))
As we begin a new cycle of Torah, the mitzvah that we open with is peru urevu. The obligation, as we have seen, goes beyond childbearing. It implies the proliferation and dissemination of the Divine Image, an element of Divine holiness latent within each of us, to the greatest possible degree.
Of course, the elemental fulfillment of the mitzvah is by meaning of begetting children, the procreative act that requires Divine partnership. Yet, whenever our contact with the world gives expression to the human elevation that characterizes the Divine Image—be it in mitzvah performance or in following just ways ((As the verse writes, “God created man just” (Koheles 7:29). By acting with justice and morality, we exercise the elevation natural to humankind.)) —we touch the essence of the mitzvah.
Our prayer is that the commencing year should be a year in which Hashem should find favor in our deeds. Just as He partners father and mother in the formation of a new child, so he should partner us in enshrining the Shechinah in our midst—speedily and in our days.