LOS ANGELES — Millions of children fall asleep every night hungry, wearing an unchanged diaper, and 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 7 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 include the more than 160 million orphans who lack love, attachment and emotional support, let alone homes.
In addition to the moral imperative given the current global state, the Torah strongly condones adoption. The orphan (yatom) is prioritized in the Torah 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). To become a parent to a parentless child is to emulate the Divine.
Jewish law encourages adoption so much that the law even considers the adoptive parents who care for, raise, and teach their child to be the official parents. “Whoever brings up an orphan in their home, it is as though they gave birth to him” (Sanhedrin 19b). This is true to the extent that a child’s halachic name includes his or her foster parents’ names, 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 marrying them off, and for providing them with the means to live economically independent lives. Even further, we must allocate our communal funds to support orphans (Ketubot 67b).
There is great precedent for adoption as a model to cultivate greatness. For example, the greatest prophet of all time, Moses, was adopted when his parents couldn’t safely raise him (Exodus 2). His multiple identities as a Hebrew and Egyptian benefited his leadership greatly cultivating deeper empathy toward human vulnerability. Similarly, Mordechai raised his orphaned cousin Esther, who went on to be a crucial Jewish leader. The great talmudic sage Abaye often quoted wise sayings in the name of his foster mother.
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 no damage greater to the soul then growing up in the world without parents and without being held at night. Every stable family has the opportunity to embrace the most vulnerable humans on the planet when we give children a home and family. Let’s consider.
(Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, the social justice organization guided by Torah values and dedicated to combating suffering and oppression.)