When the census was taken in the desert, families were recorded by the names of their fathers. Now that's unfair! Who insisted on having these children in Egypt over their husbands' protests? Who defied Pharaoh's decree and risked their lives to carry, give birth to and nurse these children? Now that the children are to be counted, the mothers are no longer noteworthy?1

In truth, no one needs a census to identify his mother. Every child knows his mother. She raised him, nursed him, nurtured and loved him. The question is, who is the father? How many children can answer that question with certainty? For that we need a census.

Family Values

It was important for all to shout from the rooftops that all Jewish children could identify their fathers with confidenceThere was hardly an Egyptian that could answer that question with confidence. The Egyptian women were promiscuous; even the married ones could not identify the fathers of their children.2 Men fathered children in multiple families and women gave birth to children from multiple fathers. Fathers refused to care for or claim kinship to children that might not be theirs, and children never cared to bond with fathers that might not be theirs. The entire family unit disintegrated, dragging family values down with it.

When Jews established their national identity, they sought to distinguish themselves from their former captors. The Jewish family unit was cohesive; mothers and fathers begot children. No, it was not important to point out who the mothers were; children could tell their mothers from a mile away. But it was important for all and sundry to shout from the rooftops that all Jewish children could identify their fathers with confidence. Jewish mothers, no matter how much credit they deserved, did not raise their children by themselves.

Imagine that. There was not a single promiscuous mother in a nation of several million or a single father who could not embrace his children with absolute confidence. Now that's saying something.3

Knowing and Understanding

The explanation answers the question, but does not satisfy the seeking mind. Family cohesion is the building block of nations. Notwithstanding Egypt's glaring lack thereof, one would expect this standard from all nations. Egypt was hardly the moral benchmark for nations to surpass, and exceeding the Egyptian denominator would hardly have been a ringing endorsement. There must therefore be a deeper layer of meaning to the identification of Jewish children by their fathers.

Mothers and fathers parent in different ways. Mothers provide the nurturing love that builds confidence and enables personalities to flourish. Fathers provide the mentoring that directs our path and shows us right from wrong.

(Of course, the mother and father roles are not exclusive – these are the typical features of each, but both fathers and mothers need to incorporate the other's style too, and often do.)

Both parents contribute to the child's burgeoning sense of morality. Mothers teach us to strive for goodness, to desire it and to cherish it. Fathers instruct us to adhere to moral standards, whether we like it or not. When the child rebels or demands a reason, a mother patiently explains, whereas a father, who is apt to respond with, "Because I told you so," sternly instructs.

Children need to know that curiosity is normal. But they also need to know that moral standards are not negotiableChildren need both. They need to know that curiosity is normal and that answers are available to those who seek them. But they also need to know that moral standards are not negotiable. The young cannot expect to understand everything. Even adults don't understand the reason for every moral standard. That is why we call them imperatives, not philosophies. On the deepest level, we don't embrace morality because we understand its importance, but because we know it to be the right path.

Reason and Faith

This mother and father model is reflected in our relationship with G‑d. There are philosophers and there are believers. Both can accept the existence of G‑d, but one believes it; the other is logically convinced of it. The certainty experienced by the believer cannot be emulated by the philosopher. Explanations answer questions; they don't establish truths. Philosophy posits theories, but cannot conclude with absolute finality, at least not the kind of finality that the believer experiences in faith. Every argument spawns a counter argument; every theory a counter theory.

Judaism requires both. We are instructed to know of G‑d's existence and also to believe in it. Knowledge denotes an understanding that arises from study. We are meant to be curious, to pose questions and seek answers. But we are also meant to accept G‑d's existence on faith. Reason has its limits; it can only carry us so far. At the place where reason leaves off, a Jew is required to take the leap.

After all our questions are answered and our reservations resolved, we are expected to be absolutely certain of G‑d's existence. Reason cannot give rise to such certainty; it can only remove the obstacle of doubt. Such conviction arises from faith.4

The Fathers

The census that was taken in the desert trumpeted the distinction between Egyptian and Jew. The distinction was certainly not to be found in reason; ancient Egypt was renowned for its philosophy and academic achievements. What set the Jew apart was the certitude that arises from faith.

What set the Jew apart was the certitude that arises from faithMorality that is founded on reason is subject to reversal. Faith-based morality is not reversible. The Egyptians found logical justifications for the torture they inflicted on their Jewish slaves. They were not amoral; they were simply convinced by persuasive arguments that their treatment of the Jews was just. The Jew vowed to be different. It would not be enough to understand the basis for morality. To be a Jew it would be necessary to accept it on faith, faith in the supreme authority that is responsible for the moral code.5

To make clear this distinction, the Jews were instructed to identify themselves according to their fathers. The loving nurture that we receive from our mothers does not establish the backbone of our commitment. For that we require the firm, no-nonsense instruction that we receive from our fathers.6