Immediately after creating man and woman, God told them, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the land and conquer it” (Gen. 1:28).
One might think that the very first mitzvah in the Torah would be some central precept — not worshipping idols, for example, or the belief in one God. What is so important about procreation, that this was God’s first command to humanity? And why is it necessary for God to command that which comes so naturally to humans?
The fact that “pru u'revu” (procreation) is a mitzvah is crucial. This indicates that this activity is rooted in absolute holiness and goodness. Indeed, recognizing the holiness in procreation is the very basis for an ethical outlook.
If one is unable to perceive the absolute good that comes from the continued survival of the human race, then life itself is merely the lamentable victory of our natural drives over the desire for good. Such a pessimistic view is the root of all negative traits and immoral behavior. The ultimate conclusion of such an outlook is that ‘Might makes right,’ that the strong and the fit deserve to rule over the weak.
However, when procreation is revealed to us as a holy obligation, then we must acknowledge that the true inner drive for the formation of life is not some blind biological instinct, but rather an inner Divine goodness. This knowledge should impress upon us the innate goodness to be found in all aspects of life.
Nonetheless, we know that life is not easy. Life in this world is full of pain and suffering. Even the Sages concluded that it would better for the soul not to have been born (Eiruvin 13b). How can we bring children into such a world?
Just as this mitzvah reinforces our natural aspirations for goodness, so too it elevates our thoughts to recognize an underlying unity over time. The past, present, and future are all bound together. It is not for the faulty world of the present, nor for the cruel world of the past, that we bear and raise children. Rather, we bring new souls into the world in order to advance the universe towards the infinitely bountiful world of the future.
Through the mitzvah of “pru u'rvu,” we actively participate in the world’s gradual progression. We help advance the universe to attain the lofty state when life is revealed in its noblest form, when cognizant, sentient living beings will be brought to a state of incomparably refined and fulfilled life. They will experience a world in which life is no longer an onerous burden, but a delightful benefit and blessing.
The Divine mandate of “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the world” demands that we perfect the world in all aspects. We need to advance the world, both physically and spiritually. We are commanded to “fill the world” both qualitatively and quantitatively. The harsh aspects of a raw and untamed world, which stem from its desolation and emptiness, are surmounted by our efforts throughout the generations to settle and refine it.
(adapted from Otzarot HaRe’iyah vol. II, pp. 518-9)