Sermon: “Give me children, or I shall die” – Parashat Vayetze

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 27 November 2009

“Give me children, or I shall die” Sermon on Parashat Vayetze, 28 November 2009

So Jacob, it seems, is to get it all – he meets with God and then he meets the girl of his dreams.  Despite some pretty dodgy beginnings, it seems – at least from what we have read this morning – that his will turn out to be a perfect story.

But life is not so simple.  In any good story, a character with such a dubious nature must get his just desserts.  And so, instead of Rachel, Jacob is tricked into first marrying Leah.  The bible ensures that the man who stole from his brother by deceiving his father is himself deceived.  All well and good.  Order, it seems, is restored.

But it is not only Jacob who is to suffer. The women in his life will be affected too.  Leah is destined to live in a marriage without love.  And, when finally Jacob is able to marry Rachel, she is unable to conceive, suffering the pain of watching her sister produce child after child while she is unable to have children.  And the torment of Rachel is almost unbearable.  In one of the most powerful, most heartbreaking, verses in Torah she calls out to her husband: “Give me children, or I shall die”.  In her pain, Rachel speaks for generations of women, and of men, who have been unable to have children, for many hundreds of couples today who are unable to do so.

In fact, Rachel’s words speak not for hundreds but for thousands.  The numbers affected by infertility in modern society are quite staggering.  Infertility is estimated to affect around one in seven couples in the UK.  And although a majority of these are eventually able to conceive without medical intervention, a significant minority can not.

In one of those statistics which seem obvious when you think about it, but which still comes as a surprise, infertility is after pregnancy itself the most common reason for women aged between 20 and 45 to see their doctor.

If we add the estimated 90,000 women who experience miscarriage each year – the cry of Rachel – Give me children, or I shall die – should be almost deafening.

Yet it is not – unlike those who suffer other forms of loss, or more visible medical difficulties, the pain of those who suffer childlessness is often a hidden one.  Their voice is rarely heard. Nowhere is this more true than in the Jewish world.

With the tale of Rachel, and the other examples of ‘barren’ women in the Torah, it would be hoped that the Jewish community should be a place that provides a haven for these couples – a community which can empathise with the pain of women and men unable to conceive.

Unfortunately this has not traditionally been the case.  In fact, it is widely recognized that being without children in the Jewish community is especially difficult.

The attitude of our formative texts does not help.

While the bible tells of the pain of female characters unable to conceive, from Sarah through to Hannah, ultimately in almost all cases they do manage to have children – with the help of God.  This being the case, it is hardly a surprise that in rabbinic literature fertility is understood as being in the control of God.  According to the Babylonian Talmud, God holds the key to three things: to the resurrection of the dead, to rain, and to childbirth (Bavli Ta’anit 2a).

The midrash asks in relation to the infertility of Rachel – Why were the matriarchs barren?  Its answer is far from satisfactory– Because the Holy One yearns for their prayers and supplications (Bereshit Rabbah 45:4). Other midrashim extend this logic to all – that those who are unable to conceive are somehow being tested or purified through their suffering to meet God.

It is an incredibly unhelpful tradition – Yet one that remains current in some parts of our community.  It is a tradition which utterly fails to respond to the psychological and physical toll that childlessness places on many in our communities. If the Midrash is unhelpful, what about the Halachah (Jewish law)?  This too fails to provide comfort for those unable to have children.  Indeed, it exacerbates the pain, for it is concerned not with the experience of childlessness but with the inability of men in this situation to fulfil their religious obligation – their inability to fulfil the biblical injunction p’ru ur’vu – be fruitful and multiply.

And so, the Mishnah tells us that if after ten years a marriage has not produced children, a man may not abstain from his responsibility any longer but must attempt to procreate with another (Yevamot 6:6).  In cultures where polygamy was permitted, this ruling led to men taking additional wives.  In Ashkenaz where polygamy was banned in Jewish law, childlessness would lead inevitably to divorce.  The law is that the ‘ten year count’ is reset in cases of miscarriage, and so there are numerous accounts of Jewish women – into the modern age – forced to simulate pregnancy and miscarriage in order to keep their marriages together.

Only in the area of medical intervention can it be said that ours is a tradition that is an ally of the childless.  IVF, though only IVF using one’s own genetic material, is actively encouraged in Jewish law.  Yet even this is a double edged sword.  The liberalism of halachah here, wonderful as it is, comes out of the great emphasis placed on procreation as an obligation in our tradition.  And so, the pressure on women to repeatedly undergo sometimes painful and exhausting intervention is enormous.  And where such treatments fail to work, as they often do, the suffering is even greater.

It is not a great story so far.

But while our traditional texts might not respond well to the pain of modern day Rachels – the truth is that we can. As an intellectual movement we can, with total integrity, free ourselves from the traditional obsession with procreation – one which puts additional pressure on those unable or unwilling to have children.  We can acknowledge that within our narrative this demand no longer carries the power it once had.  We can recognise that the injunction to be fruitful and multiply is one given in the plural – it is an imperative given to all of humanity – and as such it is one that we have already fulfilled in spades.  While we welcome new life with all the joy and potential it brings, those fortunate enough to have children should not be seen, in this respect, as responding to divine injunction.

As a community too we can respond to the voice of Rachel.  Ours is a community blessed with children.  We have a staggering number of young families.  Our alternative services are packed with babies and toddlers.  I have the honour of helping to think creatively about our education and youth provision to ensure that we remain the natural home for young families for generations to come as we absolutely wish to be.

Yet we must equally be careful not to exclude those whose families are a different shape.  We must be wary of being as Leah was to her sister – of inadvertently adding to the torment by celebrating our own communal fertility.  And so we must ask ourselves: Are we doing enough to give meaningful roles and opportunities to those without children?  Either those unable to conceive or indeed the increasing numbers who choose not to have children?  Are there sufficient entry points into synagogue life for those who do not – by choice or through tears – take the route of kindergarten, cheder, Bar/Bat Mitzvah?

And perhaps most importantly, as individuals we can be sensitive to the psychological trauma of those unable to have children.  I have lost count of the number of times I have heard from childless couples about the pain of the well meaning but hurtful comment.  ‘Still no children?’ ‘When are you planning to have kids?’  Or, indeed, for couples who have had a child but are unable to conceive or carry to term again: ‘When will number two be on the way?’

We simply do not know whether the woman sitting next to us in synagogue, the man who we are chatting to in Kiddush, has been trying, has experienced miscarriage, has been through round after round of fertility treatment without success.

A Midrash on the story of Hannah, which we read as our Haftarah last week, tells us that even as she suffered, her husband’s other wife, Peninah, used to taunt her, saying to her – isn’t it time to get the kids ready for school?  Isn’t it time to go and pick them up? (Midrash Shmuel 5).  While I can’t imagine that any of us would choose to taunt, as Peninah does, we must be wary of doing so inadvertently by making assumptions about what families should look like.

The Bible recognises of the matriarchs, that in their inability to have children they are, as Rachel cries out, ‘as if they are dead’.  It is a metaphor that recognises the deep psychological toll that infertility and miscarriage takes on the individual.  The way our tradition has evolved has not always helped to ease that pain, and nor have our communities.  Yet we can – by not assuming whenever we plan an event that the hook will be our children, by not assuming that the word ‘family’ must mean children, and by recognising that, for many among us, childlessness is a stage in their life journey which deserves and demands recognition. In another traditional analogy, the barren woman is compared to a building demolished.  Together may we help to rebuild.