Kid: I have a feeling I’m adopted. I must ask my Mom.
Friend: Why cause her pain by asking?
Kid: Because I must know the truth, if I am really her child.
Friend: I still think it’s a bad idea.
(Mom enters the room.)
Kid: Mom, am I adopted?
Mom: You can’t be adopted.
Kid: Why not?
Mom: Because I would never have chosen you.
This little skit reminds us of the enduring virtue of adoption. The decision to bear a biological child is a sort of abstract selection, more an endorsement of one’s partner: “I want for us to have a kid with our genes merged into one.” But adopting is an affirmation of the specific persona of that life: “I hereby invite you to be my child.” Don’t let the infantile gurgling response throw you; the kid is thrilled.
All this comes to mind today as we bury an adopted President, Gerald Rudolff Ford Jr. (Ford was kind enough to alter the spelling to Rudolph, perhaps in honor of Santa Claus bringing him the Presidency.) His given name at birth was Leslie Lynch King Jr., but Mr. King Sr., a tycoon with a temper, divorced his mother shortly afterward. She chose more wisely the second time, a sturdier rather than a flashier type. So house painter Gerald Rudolff Ford Sr. adopted his wife’s child and provided for him, thereby assuring his name a posterity he could scarcely have imagined. Similarly, Mr. Blythe’s son assumed the Presidency as William Jefferson Blythe Clinton, more honor accruing to adoptive father Mr. Clinton.
In President Ford’s case there is an added poignancy in the notion that he was essentially an adopted President. The citizenry had not voted for him as either President or Vice-President, so they were called upon to adopt him in office, as it were. Fate determined that an unelected President was the appropriate replacement for one who was discredited by election chicanery.
There is a Jewish tradition I suspect is unknown to those who encounter the Bible only in translation, although the clues are there. Jacob had a son named Asher, of whom the verse (Genesis 46:17) says: “The children of Asher were Yemina and Yishva and Yishvi and Briah, and their sister Serahâ€¦” By calling Serah “their sister”, it hints she was adopted. Later, in Numbers (46:26), it says: “The name of Asher’s daughter was Serah.” The Aramaic translation (Targum) reads: “And the name of Asher’s wife’s daughter was Serah.” This is used as a legal source for the concept of paternal adoption.
What I have never seen any commentator do is connect this to two other well-founded traditions. One is in the Midrash, the second is in the Talmud, and both are taught to all Jewish schoolchildren. The first is that Serah was Jacob’s favorite granddaughter. When it came time to tell him that Joseph was alive after all, his children were afraid to approach him, so Serah was left with the task. She composed a song with the news and sang it to Jacob, while sitting on his knee and playing with his beard.
The second story is that there was a code word handed down by Jacob when he died. If someone came and claimed to be the redeemer from Egypt, he had to know the code word to be accepted. Obviously, only one person could be trusted with the secret or it could be abused. Jacob chose to pass it to Serah; when Moses came, he had to first pass muster with her offspring. Put all this together and what do you get? That the adopted daughter was loved and trusted with the fate of the entire family.
This moving image speaks urgently to our time. The issue of adoption becomes ever more vital as the family structure learns to contend with modern urbanized society. Often the upheavals of the fast-paced life fracture the fragile domestic bond in its formative phase. Children are hostages to the learning experiences of young parents. There is great comfort in knowing this is the oldest story of all; it happened to Asher’s wife 3500 years ago and to Gerald Ford’s mother ninety years back. A loving father can redeem that child, an act not dissimilar to the act of redeeming the nation itself.
Picture that tableau. Moses, an adopted child without either parent, comes to redeem the nation. First he must check in with the descendant of the adopted child, Serah, to be certified. Now the nation can be saved. Now there is enough selflessness, enough choosing to give, enough unconditional love, for a new nation to survive. After years of suffering, it may be possible to believe again that someone cares. We adopted Gerald Ford as our President, and he adopted us when we had been abandoned. There were better Presidents in our time, but not many finer people. May Heaven adopt him for their own.
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