At the beginning of this week’s portion, Lech Lecha, Abram and Sarai (later named Abraham and Sarah) make the the bold move to follow God to the land of Canaan. They have no children. We learn that they had difficulty conceiving on their own: an ancient spin on a painful experience in every generation.
In chapter 12 of Genesis, God appears to Abram and promises him that the land will be given to him and his descendants. Can you imagine the pain of this statement to a couple that have no children, and wish that they did? Abram and Sarai say nothing as God’s promises to their nonexistent children grow more and more specific.
In Genesis 13, God shows Abram the magnitude of the land for his descendants, who will be as great in number as the dust of the earth. It happens again in chapter 15: God promises Abram “an abundant reward.”
Finally, this time Abram speaks up, saying: “God, what can You give me, when I am going to die childless … Look, to me You have given no offspring!” God promises yet again that Abram will have an heir — specifically, one that “comes from your own body.” How confusing this must have been to Abram and Sarai, when after many years of marriage, now approaching old age, they have never been able to bear children.
Taking God’s words seriously, Sarai commits herself to enabling Abram to bear a child. If not through her body, then through the body of another. “Seeing as God has kept me from bearing a child, have intercourse with my slave; Maybe I will have a son through her.” And so Sarai’s handmaiden, Hagar, becomes pregnant with Abram’s first son, Ishmael.
The Torah does not give us great insight into Sarai’s thought process in this moment. We don’t know if she expected to celebrate Hagar’s pregnancy, or grieve it. We don’t know if she anticipated that she would love Ishmael, or resent him. Sarai couldn’t have known what it would feel like to see another woman bear the child that she couldn’t. We can assume that this was a tremendous and painful emotional sacrifice that Sarai made as she tried to do right by her husband, and right by God.
I am reminded of a recent rabbinic training I attended with the organization Hasidah, led by founder Rabbi Idit Solomon. Hasidah’s mission is to build awareness and support for couples in the Jewish community who are experiencing infertility.
Rabbi Solomon spoke to a group of Bay Area rabbis about the experience of infertility. It can be isolating, disheartening; and emotionally, financially and spiritually exhausting. It is not an experience that we often talk about. Quite the opposite: In the Jewish community, we joyfully welcome babies, celebrate pregnancy and give playful nudges to young people who have yet to bear children. To the couple that desperately want children, but have recently met with an infertility specialist, had yet another failed round of in vitro fertilization or experienced a painful miscarriage, these well-intended comments can be devastating. How painful to want something so badly, that so many others have so easily, and to meet time after time with disappointment.
Difficulty in childbearing is a trope in Torah that ties together three of our matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel. Each of these women eventually becomes a mother through divine intervention. “In the Torah, God responds to their cries by granting them the experience of motherhood” (“Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary”). In other words, God makes miracles for these women, enabling them to become not only the mother of a family, but the mother of a people.
Today, God responds differently to the cries of couples with the availability of medical intervention, and organizations like Hasidah that help make these interventions possible. God responds through each one of us, as we expose the pain of this experience and bring it out into the open. God responds when we understand infertility not as a taboo topic, but as a painful experience. God responds through each one of us when we are more careful with our language: holding our tongues and not making assumptions when we meet a couple that does not have children. God responds through us: with awareness, with gentle words and open hearts.
Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is an associate rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at email@example.com.