Lech Lecha: Infertile Nation

“Jacob was the founder of a whole new nation,

 Thanks to the number of children he’d had

 He was also known as Israel but most of the time

 His sons and his wives used to call him dad” (Jacob and Sons, Andrew Lloyd Webber)

What do the founding fathers of the Jewish people all have more in common? Nothing is more evident than their struggle with infertility. The Bible spars no words in emphasizing this aspect of our forefathers’ life, putting the issue of infertility at the front and center of who the Jewish people are.

After 70 years(!) of being the only person in the world to worship The One God, Abraham, suddenly hears that same God speak to him.

“After these incidents, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Fear not, Abram; I am your Shield; your reward is exceedingly great.” (Genesis 15)

Astonishing!

After all that faith, trust, and depth of recognition, Abraham must have been beside himself hearing from God! He must have had so much he wanted to say, ask, and express to God. What does Abraham say to God?

“And Abram said, “O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am going childless, and the steward of my household is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, You have given me no seed, and behold, one of my household will inherit me.”

Lord Jonathan Sacks points out the incredibly both climactic—and anti-climactic—nature of this response. Abraham expresses a sad, grim, and desperate reality to God: there is nothing God can give him. He is childless. The magnitude of helplessness and hopelessness, which comes with infertility are the silent scream that can be heard in Abraham’s answer; it is like a silence that has the power to shatter the eardrum. It is akin to the desperation addressed in the book of Isaiah (chapter 56)

“Let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For so says the Lord to the eunuchs who will keep My Sabbaths and will choose what I desire and hold fast to My covenant, “I will give them in My house and in My walls a place and a name(“Yad Va’Shem”), better than sons and daughters; an everlasting name I will give him, which will not be discontinued.”

From God’s promise to the childless one can hear the echo of desperation. After all, what is the point of any deed or reward if it has not a continuation. Thus God responds with a promise, a promise which later became most known for bearing the name of those who perished during the Holocaust—Yad Va’shem; He will give them eternity in His home, something whose lasting value can outlive that of sons and daughters. This is the same desperation Abraham is expressing to God.

God does not respond by promising Abraham a permanent place in his home—a Yad Va’Shem — God has something else in stock for Abraham.

“And He[God] took him [Abraham] outside, and He said, “Please look heavenward and count the stars if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So will be your seed.”

Simply put, the most important promise God ever made to His most beloved follower in human history, was simple: fertility. Your children will be as many as the stars, was the promise God made to Abraham.

This did not come out of nowhere. Infertility was written into the very essence of Abraham and Sarah.

“And Abram and Nahor took themselves wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and the father of Iscah. And Sarai was barren; she had no child. (Genesis, 11)

The first time we ever hear of our forefathers, Abraham and Sarah, all we hear about is their lineage and their infertility. This byline keeps on haunting Abraham and Sarah for the entirety of their lives.

“Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not borne to him, and she had an Egyptian handmaid named Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing; please come to my handmaid; perhaps I will be built up from her.” And Abram hearkened to Sarai’s voice.” (Genesis 16)

From here to the birth and binding of Isaac, and the death of Sarah, Abraham and Sarah’s infertility is at the center of every aspect of their life, thereby written into the DNA of their descendants.

While there are many other aspects to the lives of Abraham’s child Isaac, the fate of infertility does not skip his family either.

“And Isaac was 40 years old when he took Rebecca, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Padan Aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to himself for a wife. And Isaac prayed to the Lord opposite his wife because she was barren…” (Genesis 25). Following the verse, what do we know about Rebecca? Yes, that she was barren.

The horror of infertility is not alleviated when it comes to our third patriarch, Jacob, and Rachel:

“And Rachel saw that she had not borne [any children] to Jacob, and Rachel envied her sister, and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, and if not, I am dead. “And Jacob became angry with Rachel, and he said, “Am I instead of God, Who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”

It is impossible to ignore the screaming pain of Rachel in the words “Give me children, and if not, I am dead. “So strong is the pain of barrenness that Rachel cannot consider continuing to live with it. The rabbis make the point of criticizing Jacob’s response (Midrash Rabbah, 71) “God said to Jacob, is this how you address someone in distress?! I swear to you that one day your children will stand before her children” i.e. bowing down before Joseph.

“And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and He opened her womb. And she conceived and bore a son, and she said, “God has taken away my reproach.” So she named him Joseph, saying, “May the Lord grant me yet another son!”

A look at the description and names of all twelve children of Jacob and their naming, it is all about fertility. From Reuben’s meaning–” see it is a son”– all the way to Benjamin being born even as the midwife tries to comfort Rachel she has now a son, it is all about birth.

The shame, pain, and hopelessness of infertility are palpable and resonate powerfully throughout the entire book of Genesis, and the conception of the Jewish people.

And then, silence.

No more stories of infertility.

Not in the book of Exodus. Not in the Book of Leviticus. Not in the book of Numbers, and not in the book of Deuteronomy.

Why?

This is directly connected to the opening statement of the book of Genesis(chapter 1). “In the beginning of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.”

There is nothing that symbolizes creating like the creation of a new human being, and there is nothing that echoes “the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep” like barrenness. The book of Genesis in the book of creation(Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, the Ramban, in his introduction to the book of Bresheet). Creation takes place in the form of God, bringing this world into being. It also takes place in the form of those who had no hope of reproduction conceiving. The children of Israel are not just children, they are a creation. They are something that is brought forth from the midst of childlessness and emptiness. Thus, once the book of Genesis and creation is over, infertility is no longer the theme. Until it is again.

When God delivers to Israel, three of its most famous saviors, we once again encounter childlessness.

“And there was one man from Zorah, from the family of the Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife was barren, and had not borne. And an angel of the Lord appeared to the woman, and said to her, “Behold now, you are barren, and have not borne; and you shall conceive and bear a son…. But his wife said to him, “If the Lord wanted to kill us, He would not have received from our hand a burnt-offering and a meal-offering, and He would not have shown us all these things; and at this time He would not let us hear (such things) as these.” (Judges chapter 13)

This, least famous of the three, is the account of the birth of Samson. Manoah and his wife had no children. “and his wife was barren, and had not borne”. In case you knowing she was barren was not enough, we are notified she had no children. Both the pain and emptiness are emphasized as she, the hopeful one, encounters God’s angel who informs her indeed she will have a child.

This is then followed by the most famous of all. Hannah.

The book of Samuel, featuring the man who will help Israel transition from a tribal and fractured society into a national superpower ruled by the house of David—the great prophet Samuel—begins with the story of the most expressive barren woman ever.

The book begins with the affection Elkanah showed his wife, Hannah, who had no children.

“And to Hannah, he would give one choice portion, for he loved Hannah, and the Lord had shut up her womb…. And she was bitter in spirit, and she prayed to the Lord, and wept. And she vowed a vow. She said: to Lord of Hosts, if You will look upon the affliction of Your bondswoman, and You will remember me, and You will not forget Your bondswoman and You will give Your bondswoman a man-child, and I shall give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head.” (Samuel I, chapter 1)

After enduring repeated humiliation, being judged, and feeling isolated, Hannah’s prayer is finally answered. Hannah responds with one of the most beautiful prayers ever written, a prayer which will inspire the rabbis of the Talmud to codify all the laws of prayer. They saw Hannah’s gracious, sincere, and righteous prayer as the best possible model of all prayers. In her prayer, Hannah reflects on what transformation for barrenness to motherhood is like:

“The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and raises up. The Lord impoverishes and makes rich. He humbles; He also exalts. He lifts the poor from the dust; From the dunghill, He raises the pauper, To seat them with princes, And a seat of honor He causes them to inherit, For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, And He placed the world upon them.” (Samuel I chapter 2)

No one could have done more justice to recognize the unmatchable pain of infertility, and the bliss of bearing children; “The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and raises up.” The rollercoaster of life could not be felt more strongly than in the context of life vs. death, and childlessness transformed into a child. The story of Hannah is one the captures both the perspective of fertility and infertility. It is out of this sensitivity that Samuel is born. Samuel turns out being one of the most nuanced leaders the Jewish people have ever seen. He recognizes the pain of the wretched and deals tactfully with royalty. Samuel is a leader who can bow his head when needed, and speak truth to power when called onto. Rising from the despair of barrenness to the hope of birth, allowed Hannah to mother Samuel into the leader that he had become. Once again, we see a two-sided perspective, highlighting both fertility and infertility, making the people of Israel into who they are.

Not every story of infertility has a miraculous happy ending. There are many times in which infertility persists, and the hopeful would-be-parents find themselves childless. The enormity of pain in such cases cannot be overstated. That is where legacy and the afterlife come into play. As stated by Isaiah(chapter 56):

“Let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”

There are times in which someone who will never have any children can begin to lose hope; after all, what hope is there. The person might liken themselves to a “dry tree.” It is in that case that God responds:

“For so says the Lord to the eunuchs who will keep My Sabbaths and will choose what I desire and hold fast to My covenant, “I will give them in My house and in My walls a place and a name(“Yad Va’Shem”), better than sons and daughters; an everlasting name I will give him, which will not be discontinued.”

Actions matter beyond progeny. God assures those who were not able to have children their actions’ impact will go far being their life. They will have” a place and a name(“Yad Va’Shem”) better than sons and daughters; an everlasting name I will give him, which will not be discontinued.” The quest for continuity will be met by the merit of their deeds and the lasting reward for that. This is not to diminish in any way the importance of progeny, but to address the reality in which there are those who will never have children. This is not the only way it is addressed. The most famous, yet unknown way of addressing infertility, is the one which delivered King David to the Jewish people.

While King David does not emerge out of the plight of explicit infertility, his very existence emanates from the midst of near extinction. One reason we read the book of Ruth on the holiday of Shavuot is because king David—Ruth’s great-grandson—passed away on Shavuot. Commentaries note one of the reasons for recording the book of Ruth is specifically because of the outlining of the Davidic dynasty’s roots. Which highlights a vital recognition of infertility in Judaism—the non-medical one.

While Ruth herself is not found to struggle with infertility, she is seen as the continuation of the house of Elimelech, who died in Moab. When she finally marries Boaz, a relative of Elimelech. When marrying her, Boaz recognizes that role:

“And also, Ruth the Moabitess, Mahlon’s wife, have I acquired for myself for a wife, to preserve the name of the deceased on his heritage, so that the name of the deceased not be obliterated from his brethren and from the gate of his place, you are witnesses today.” And all the people who were in the gate and the elders replied, “[We are] witnesses! May the Lord make the woman who is entering your house like Rachel and like Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel, and prosper in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. And Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife… and she bore a son. And the women said to Naomi, “Blessed is the Lord, Who did not deprive you of a redeemer today, and may his name be famous in Israel.” ( Ruth 4)

The fundamental need for continuity could not be overstated. “so that the name of the deceased not be obliterated[1] from his brethren and from the gate of his place”. Judaism does not take the issue of fertility or infertility lightly. The absence of progeny is seen in the most serious of terms. And yet, even when no children were born, the Torah asks that we addressed that branch of the family. King David emanates from a family who faced the threat of disappearance, just to be resurrected by a Moabite woman—Ruth—that they too will have a memory. The David dynasty— the eternal dynasty of Israel— is founded on an existence emerging from a struggle with continuity, eventually overcoming that very challenge. Elimelech, Mahlon, and Kilyon all died in Moab. Ruth is able to resurrect those lost lives by going out of her way to assure another kind of continuity for those who have perished. Infertility is seen in the most severe terms, yet hope and a dawn in the distance are there no matter what. Once again, a story of fertility and infertility are at the veritable epicenter of the Hebrew Bible and the story of Jewish peoplehood.

>And finally, the Jewish people as a whole are compared to a woman not able to conceive. In fact,  the Midrash (Peskita De’Rav Kahana, 20) states: “there are seven barren ones. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Manoah’s wife, Hannah, and Zion.” The Midrash is referring to a verse in Isaiah(chapter 54), which characterizes the Jewish people—Knesset Yisrael—as a childless woman.

“Sing you barren woman who has not borne; burst out into song and jubilate, you who have not experienced birth pangs, for the children of the desolate one are more than the children of the married woman,” says the Lord. Widen the place of your tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of your habitations, do not spare; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For right and left shall you prevail, and your seed shall inherit nations and repopulate desolate cities.”

The nation of Israel itself is characterized as a barren woman, the process of exile and redemption linked to the transition from the state of infertility to infertility. Scripture recognizes the incredible sense of pain and despair associated with infertility, contrasted only by the hope and joy associated with that very condition being resolved.

The Hebrew Bible and the story of the Jewish people place the highest emphasis on the struggle of infertility, giving few issues as much attention. Traditional communities should not need to struggle to choose between a child-centered environment and one that is sensitive to those struggling with infertility. Stories laying at the bedrock of who we are as a nation show an unparalleled value placed on fertility and childrearing while at the same time showing the highest of sensitivities to those who struggle with infertility. With those who struggle with infertility reporting encounters of insensitivityisolationlack of inclusion and even outright exclusion, the words of God to Jacob “is this how you address someone in distress?! (Midrash Rabbah 74) come to mind. A people so familiar with the story of infertility should be able to simultaneously place a great emphasis on raising children and education, while at the same time being sensitive to those who are not in the position to raise children. “And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. (Exodus 22:20) The Jewish people and the followers of the Hebrew Bible are the products of a series of struggles with infertility and should know best how to show sensitivity to individuals in those very situations. Ironic though it may sound, we are all products of an Infertile Nation. Infertility is at the core of who we are as a people. 

 

The numbers speak for themselves. While rates of infertility in general society stand at 1 of 8 people, members of the Jewish community experience infertility at a rate of 1 our of 6(!). A study conducted in Israel showed rates of fertilization from a non-Jewish sperm to be double(!) than the rate of sperm from a Jewish donor. We are all members of an Infertile Nation. 

As we journey the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through the book of Genesis, may we be inspired by the hope, sensitivity, and resilience modeled for us. May Abraham and Sarah’s vision, of faith, kindness, compassion, resolve, and inspiration carry us through the book of Beresheet and life itself. Shabbat Shalom. 

 

  [1] This echoes a commandment from the book of Deuteronomy(chapter 25). 

 “If brothers reside together, and one of them dies having no son, the dead man’s wife shall not marry an outsider. [Rather,] her husband’s brother shall be intimate with her, making her a wife for himself, thus performing the obligation of a husband’s brother with her. And it will be, that the eldest brother [who performs the levirate marriage, if] she [can] bear will succeed in the name of his deceased brother, so that his [the deceased brother’s] name shall not be obliterated from Israel.”

 

 

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments