Sunday, November 30, 2014

Infertility in the Hebrew Bible

Parshat Vayetze has endless topics that one could talk about, including Jacob’s famous dream, Rachel destroying her father’s idols, and the sympathetic magic that Jacob utilizes to increase his flock of sheep. However, what touches me most deeply in this parsha is Rachel’s infertility and what it can tell us about helping couples struggling with that problem today. 

In Vayetze, we read that Jacob served his uncle, Lavan, for 7 years to marry Rachel, but Lavan tricked him into marrying her older, and less desirable, sister Leah. Jacob then worked another 7 years to secure Rachel. Jacob strongly preferred Rachel, but Leah conceived and had 4 sons before Rachel had any. At this point, the parsha says “And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and she said unto Jacob: ‘Give me children or else I die.” This is a very dramatic thing to say, but it is a sentiment that resonates for many of the 1 in 8 couples in America struggling with infertility. The Torah says that “Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said: ‘Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?” (Gen. XXX:2).

Rachel seems to be issuing an ultimatum to Jacob: I don’t want to live if we can’t have children together. According to Ramban, Jacob was angry because Rachel went to him and said, “Your father, Isaac, prayed for a child and your mother conceived twins. Therefore, you must not be praying hard enough. You don’t care enough about me.”  Ramban further explains that Jacob was angry because the implication was that he should be doing the petitioning, and not Rachel herself, or the two of them together like Rebecca and Isaac prayed side-by-side for God to give them a child. According to Ramban, Jacob replies by saying “this is in God’s hands, not mine,” and hints that maybe Rachel needs to take action besides just praying. Rachel’s immediate response to her husband’s anger is is to offer up her maid, Bilha, in order for him to be built up, just like the childless Sarai offered her handmaid Hagar to Avram. 

There is another commentary on Jacob’s angry response which resonates much more with me, but we’ll visit that later. 

It’s important to note that all of the patriarchs married women who were barren. The prophets Jeremiah (30:17) and Isaiah (59:20) constantly compare the land of Israel during the Jews’ exile to a barren woman, because just as Zion is in pain during the exile, so is a barren couple in pain throughout their infertility journey. I think that this pain can be especially sharp in the Jewish community, which places so much emphasis on the importance of Jewish continuity, and where so many synagogue and social activities revolve around children.  A Jewish couple experiencing infertility has a special kind of pain: after all, the first commandment in the Torah is to be fruitful and multiply, and the Jews are a nation whose origin is the fulfillment of God’s promise to an infertile couple -- Abraham and Sarah -- that they would have a child. Rather than just viewing infertility as a medical condition, some Jewish couples view it as a judgment by God.

Why does the Torah place so much emphasis on infertility and what is it trying to teach us? One possible reason is to remind us that children are a gift from God, and not to be taken for granted. Another is to offer two possible spiritual approaches to dealing with infertility -- or for that matter -- any existential challenge. One is to use prayer. This was the approach of the barren Hannah, whose story is read on Rosh Hashana, and whose prayer becomes the model of our daily amidah. Prayer is such a natural response to infertility that Chazal assert in Shir haShirim Rabbah (2:14) and Bereishis Rabbah (45:5) that this is why God rendered our matriarchs infertile: because God craves the prayers of the righteous. I don’t pretend to know the mind of God, but I disagree with Chazal on this point. Firstly, because it seems capricious and cruel, and secondly, because our foremothers had enough other issues that would have caused them to petition God in prayer.

The other way that the matriarchs and patriarchs responded to the affliction of infertility is to undertake some form of extreme sacrifice. As I mentioned, Sarah, Leah, and Rachel all encourage their husbands to sleep with their handmaids in order to secondarily have children and build up their lineage. Hannah makes what most mothers would view as the ultimate sacrifice: giving up her hard-won son, Shmuel, to be reared away from her in service to God at the Temple. A similar story of sacrifice exists in this week’s parsha, too: Rachel and Leah negotiate that Jacob will sleep in Leah’s chambers in exchange for Leah surrendering the the mandrakes, a fruit that reportedly was an aphrodisiac, that her son Re’euven collected (the Torah tells us that Leah’s son Isaachar was conceived from that arrangement). The commentator Sforno says that Rachel only conceived Joseph after God saw that she made a strenuous effort to have children by giving her handmaid up to sleep with Jacob, by negotiating for the mandrakes, and by fervent prayer.

Please don’t think that I am suggesting that couples struggling with infertility should consider open marriage as a potential solution to their dilemma. God forbid. However, the modern version of this could be taking on extra mitzvaot when one is seeking God’s intervention in overcoming a challenge or seeking God’s resolution to a problem. Furthermore, any couple who has undergone the emotional, financial, and physical rigors of any assisted reproductive technology can attest that they are already making a significant sacrifice in order to try to have children.

I want to return to Rachel’s heartbreaking comment that she must have children or she will die, and Jacob’s anger at that response. The 15th century commentator the Akedat Yitzchak offers a different explanation than Ramban’s, and one that I find much more compelling. He writes that Jacob bristled at his wife’s comment because although having children is an important part of life, it is not the only part of life, and to suggest otherwise is not a Jewish value. What is a Jewish value is to live a life that is meaningful in other ways, even if one cannot have children. Frankly, I would argue that this is a Jewish value even if a couple is blessed with children.

Ultimately, all of the matriarchs had children, but as we know, sadly, this is not the case for everyone experiencing the pain of infertility. I believe that what the Torah is teaching us is that it is important to be generative, whether or not one has physical children. I am thinking of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe who had no biological offspring, but who often said, “I have thousands of children,” referring to Am Yisroel. I am also reminded that parshat Bereishit interrupts the telling of Noah’s generational line to praise Noah‘s character. The verse states: “These are the generations of Noah. Noah was in his generation a man righteous and whole-hearted. Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). After promising an introduction to the sons of Noah, the the pasuk goes on to praise him; his children are only mentioned in the next verse. From this, the midrash infers that this teaches us that the main progeny of the righteous is their good deeds.

I want to end with a hopeful verse from Isaiah (56:3) "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, better than sons and daughters; an everlasting name I will give them, which will not be discontinued.'" 

Regardless of marital status or if one has children or not, we can all contribute to our Jewish communities, thereby growing the nation of Israel, which is the offspring of all of us. Shabbat shalom.