Years ago, my husband’s aunt and uncle, who were in their mid-60s at the time, received an invitation from a childless couple they were friends with. The couple had commissioned the writing of a Sefer Torah and were hosting an event to celebrate its completion. When our aunt did not respond immediately, she received a phone call from her friend asking if they could please make a special effort to attend. And then she added, “Because, you know, this is our first simcha.”
Infertility is a lifelong challenge that many of us do not sufficiently appreciate. It does not end in the childbearing years, when one is surrounded by births and their accompanying celebrations. The void accompanies a childless couple throughout a lifetime, when they see their peers busy with playground gatherings, birthday parties, bar and bat mitzvahs, graduations, weddings, sheva brachot, and of course grandchildren. Every time that someone else’s children enter a new, exciting stage, it can be a painful reminder of what everyone else is up to and of what might have been, had things been different.
Judaism is an unabashedly family-centric religion. It is a mitzvah to have children, and we believe strongly that the family structure both fosters and enhances commitment. At the same time, that very orientation should make us acutely sensitive to the challenges of childlessness, down to the absence of the lifecycle “semachot” that our community so cherishes.
Infertility, however, is not an aberration in Jewish life; in a certain sense, it was the starting point. Throughout the stories of the Book of Genesis, we read about our barren ancestors who so deeply longed for children. Their tears, prayers, and tribulations continue to resonate even thousands of years later for those who find themselves in similar situations and bear critical lessons for those who do not.
In Parashat Vayetze, there is a raw and charged exchange between Rachel and Jacob around this very challenge. After her sister Leah bears four sons — Reuben, Simon, Levi and Judah — in quick succession, the Torah tells us:
And Rachel saw that she had not borne children to Jacob, and Rachel was jealous of her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, and if you don’t, I will die.”
And Jacob got angry at Rachel, and he said, “Am I in place of God, who has held back from you fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:1-2)
Even the casual reader struggles to understand both Rachel’s outburst and Jacob’s reaction. Could it be that one of our saintly mothers could not restrain her jealousy? Did she really imagine that Jacob was purposefully holding something back from her? Was her threat appropriate? Even if it weren’t, though, how could Jacob react so insensitively and harshly to his wife’s suffering?
Our greatest commentators, too, were trouble by this passage. Their efforts to make sense of it, however, hold deep insights into the plight of infertility, and careful study of some of their suggestions may sharpen our own awareness and understanding.
Rashi, clearly troubled by the text, bends over backwards to justify Rachel’s ultimatum. He suggests that Rachel was not jealous of Leah’s children, but, instead, of Leah’s good deeds. Rachel thought that if Leah merited children, she clearly must be more deserving. Rachel is neither accusing Jacob nor demanding of him to give her children. Rather, she is asking him to pray more fervently for her, the way that his father, Isaac, did for his wife, Rebecca, when she was barren. When Rachel threatens to die, it is merely a reference to the fact that one without children may be overwhelmed by his or her lack of continuity.
Because Rashi validates Rachel’s remarks, Jacob’s reaction, then, is inappropriate and hurtful. Jacob lashes out at Rachel and asks how she can expect him to pray as fervently as his father, Isaac, did. Isaac had no children at the time, but Jacob has children from Leah! According to Rashi, Rachel’s reaction is justified, but Jacob responds insensitively.
Others, however, such as Rabbi David Kimchi (Radak), think just the opposite. He reads Rachel’s words literally and maintains that out of deep jealousy, Rachel explodes at Jacob. She takes out her anger about her unfortunate situation on him, blaming him for her childlessness and threatening him that she cannot continue living like this. Read this way, Jacob is more understandable in reminding her that God is in control and that if she wants to be angry at someone, she should turn to God.
Many of the emotions expressed here might be familiar to those dealing with infertility. There can be feelings of inadequacy, that somehow a couple is underserving or not good enough to have children. There may be guilt or blame, that the problem lies with one partner or the other. And sadness, loneliness, anger and even despair often factor into the picture as well.
Yet another commentary provides us with a powerful, insightful and novel approach to understanding the exchange above. In his book “Akeidat Yitzchak,” Rabbi Yitzchak Arama of 15th century Spain explains that the two names given to the first woman — “isha” (woman) and “Chava” (“the mother of all living”) — indicate two different purposes:
The first teaches that woman was taken from man, stressing that, like him, a woman may understand and advance in the intellectual and moral field…. The second alludes to the power of childbearing and rearing children, as is indicated by the name Chava.
A woman deprived of the power of childbearing will be deprived of the secondary purpose, but be left with the ability to do evil or good, like the man who is barren. Of both the barren man and woman, Isaiah states, “I have given them in My house and in My walls a name that is better than sons and daughters” (56:5), since the offspring of the righteous is certainly good deeds.
Jacob was therefore angry with Rachel when she said “Give me children, or else I die,” in order to reprimand her and make her understand this all important principle — that she was not dead as far as their joint purpose in life because she was childless, just the same as it would be in his case, if he would have been childless.”
Our actions and our deeds, R. Yitzchak Arama is telling us, are our ultimate contributions to the world. Jacob was reminding Rachel that she was not worthless just because she had no children. There have been many great women of history who were not blessed with children, such as Sarah Schenirer, the founder of the Beis Yaakov movement and school system, and Nechama Leibowitz, the well-known Torah commentator and teacher, who made huge contributions to our world and who left behind enormous legacies.
R. Arama offers a powerful message to those who yearn for children, but it is just as important a reminder for those who are already raising families. Our children are not in our control, and they alone are not the sole testimony to who we are and what we have accomplished. All of us, one day, will be judged on the basis of our own deeds, and we need to always take responsibility for that.
Still, as a community I think we can continue to find ways to better support those around us who find themselves dealing with the unexpected challenge of infertility, whether primary or secondary. Perhaps more important than any of the explanations that the commentators give for Jacob’s behavior is their shared, underlying assumption: that keen awareness and sensitivity to how we talk, what we assume, and how we interact can help prevent unnecessary, additional pain for those who yet await a child.