In Pursuit of Fertility

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG

The one thing that we all have in common is that we have a mother. Oh, and a father/sperm donor. An egg was fertilized, a fetus grew, and at some point, we emerged, and here we are.

What we probably don’t have in common was the process. Were we love-children? Were we planned? Were our parents scared and planning on giving baby up for adoption? Did we struggle in labor? Were we born in the prime or the twilight of our parents’ lives? Did they have a hard time conceiving us? Were we the oldest? The youngest? The sole child? Were we born full-term? Premature?

Some of us are undoubtedly alive today because our parents spent tens of thousands of dollars on artificial insemination, perhaps going through that humiliating and costly process several times, until one day, finally, “it took,” and our mother received the incredible and overwhelming news that she was finally pregnant.

Imagine, though, if she had given up before achieving success. If she said, “Hubby, it’s not meant to be;” or “Honey, it’s way too expensive, with no guaranties; we’ll have to be satisfied with each other.” How far would you expect your parents to go to conceive you. How far would you go to conceive?

Parshat Lech Lecha is really a story about the lengths that Avram and Sarai went to have children. Their desire for children – and their inability to conceive – defined them, and dictated their lives’ choices.

Indeed, when we are first introduced to Sarai as Avram’s wife in Parshat Noach, the Torah makes immediately note of the fact that “Sarai was barren; she had no child.” Genesis, 11:30. The Talmud explains that the addition of the fact “she had no child,” which would otherwise be superfluous, is intended to tell us Sarai actually had no womb at all i.e. she lacked the basic plumbing necessary to bring a child into the world. See Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot, 64b. In fact, the Talmud states that both Avram and Sarai were born a tumtum – a person whose genitals are covered with a thick membrane. See above, 64a. Even when the membrane later tears, exposing the person’s genitalia, the condition generally renders the tumtum infertile. So Avram and Sarai started off with the fertility cards stacked against them.

Yet they were determined that they would have children.

Some commentaries explain that Avram’s true motive for leaving his birthplace and his father’s house was not to demonstrate his obedience and loyalty to G-d; rather, it is because he knew that the Holy Land was a holy land, and that they might have a better chance of conceiving in its sacred environs. See Rabbeinu Bachye, Noach, 11:30. So they packed up all that belonged to them, left their families and friends behind, and journeyed to a new land. They were 75 and 65 years old, respectively.

When they finally arrive in the Land of Canaan, they find it to be in a state of famine and as a barren as they themselves were. So they left their new home, and journeyed south, to Egypt. As they approach, Avram tells Sarah: “You’re so beautiful. If you say you’re my wife, they’ll kill me and take you – so tell everyone that you’re my sister, so they’ll take you without killing me.” Sure enough, Avram declares Sarai to be his sister, and she is immediately taken by Pharaoh.

Last year we discussed several questions that this odd tale raises. For one, why did Avram leave the Land of Canaan, if he went there at G-d’s command, and to avail himself of the holiness of its air? Why did he go to Egypt, knowing, anticipating, that his wife would be taken? And how was he so ready to compromise her, while seemingly be concerned only for his own safety? As discussed here, the Or HaChayim explains this entire journey was a calculated risk by Avram, believing that it would enhance his and Sarai’s prospects for conception. He sought to avail himself of the future Sotah laws (Numbers, 5:12-31), in which a woman suspected and accused of adultery is made to drink a certain concoction. If she is guilty, the drink kills her. However, if she is innocent, not only does she survive the ordeal, but she is blessed with children. Thus, Avram thought that if Sarai were to be in a situation where she appeared that she might be compromised, but that she actually was not, then they might, too, earn the blessing of children. A desperate gambit indeed!

Sadly, it doesn’t work, and Avram and Sarai return to the Land of Canaan as barren as they had left it. But they did not give up hope, although a certain bitterness sets in. Thus, shortly thereafter, G-d appears to Avram in a vision, promising him great reward for being such a devout and loyal servant. Avram’s response? “G-d what good will it do me, since you haven’t give me children to inherit me?” As he did at beginning of the Parshah, G-d promises Avram offspring as numerous as the stars of the heaven, and Avram believes him.

However, Avram’s renewed faith did not jive with the facts on the ground. He and Sarai remained barren. At this point, Sarai takes the next extraordinary step of giving her handmaiden, Hagar – who is said to have been the beautiful princess-daughter of Pharoah and a gift to Sarai – to Avram. She intends that Avram and Hagar will be husband and wife, have sex, and somehow, Sarai too might be “built up” from it.

Imagine that! In this first example of one of our patriarchs taking more than one wife, Hagar is presented to Avram by his own wife. Not only that, but, as the commentaries suggest, Sarai gave her to him – not merely to be a breeding mare, and one whose children would be born servants – but she gave her to him “for a wife.” Genesis, 16:3. Ramban points out that, lets you think that this was about Avram coveting his wife’s maidservant, or that this was an indication of some discord between Avram and Sarai, the Torah is careful to report that “Avram listened to Sarai’s voice,” but did nothing about it, until Sarai actually “took Hagar” and “gave her to Avram.” Moreover, it doesn’t state merely that “Sarai gave Hagar to Avram“; it says that Sarai gave Hagar to “Avram, her husband.” The Torah’s specific inclusion of Abram’s affectionate title makes clear that this was plan hatched in the midst of a loving and respectful relationship.

What an extraordinary sacrifice! And for such a dubious prospect – for what did she think giving Hagar to Avram would accomplish? The Midrash suggests that her reasoning was that “I will be built up from her: in the merit that I will bring my rival into my house.” Genesis Rabbah, 71:7; Aggadat B’reishit, 52. Years later, however, when Rachel attempts the same, she supports her decision by saying: “she will bear [children] on my knees, so that I, too, will be built up from her.” So Rachel – who already brought her rival (i.e. her sister, Leah) into her house, and presumably saw that the anguish that she suffered as a result did nothing to boost her fertility – now thought that if she was involved in her maidservant’s labor, childbirth, and the raising of her children, by osmosis, this might unlock Rachel’s fecundity.

Now, perhaps Sarai, knowing that her physiology would not support even fertility-by-osmosis, relied solely upon Divine intervention, and the slight hope that G-d would reward the anguish that she would suffer in her sacrifice of her monogamy.

This doesn’t appear to have worked either. Hagar becomes pregnant, and all that becomes clear is that Avram, at least, is no longer barren. Sarai now suffers the devastating realization that she alone of the three is infertile. Avram is 86 when Hagar gives birth to Ishmael.

Thirteen years later, as part of a comprehensive package of blessings, G-d promises Avram – whose name He changes to Avraham – that Sarai – whose name He changes to Sarah – will bear him a son. By that point, however, Avraham and Sarah appears as though they may have finally given up. Avraham laughs outright, and says,” G-d, seriously – I’ll be happy Ishmael lives before you.” But G-d insists, and in next week’s Parshah, a son is finally born to Avraham and Sarah.

So what does this say about all of our machinations, our plans, our attempts? What does this say about all of the segulot that we faithfully perform in the hopes that, by some talismanic magic, we will achieve our heart’s desire? How much trust should be place in biting off the pittum of an Etrog, of entering the mikvah after a pregnant woman in her 9th month has just emerged, and countless others.

The story of Avraham and Sarah would seem to suggest a double lesson: First, G-d has His plans. Prayer is potent, and G-d allows Himself to be convinced to change His plans, but no earthly device or artifice that Avraham and Sarah came up with was able to “force His hand.” On the other hand, never give up hope.* Because they are G-d’s plans, and because He is not bound by the laws of nature, it mattered not how Avraham’s and Sarah’s bodies were original constructed, or how old they were – there is nothing that is too difficult, and no point at which it is too late for Him to bless all of His children with all of the blessings of children, health, and prosperity.

Shabbat Shalom!

* An argument could be made that the greatest benefit of the segulot is that they are an affirmative act demonstrating that one still has faith that a miracle can occur – and it is that faith that creates “fertile” ground for a miracle to occur. Similarly, Avraham’s and Sarah’s life experiences – including their desperate efforts to have children – shaped them; and it is to them that G-d ultimately granted a miraculous childbirth.