In recent Torah parsha readings, we seem to come across many instances where our matriarchs had difficulty conceiving. Sarah only had a baby at the age of 90. Rebecca waited 20 years to conceive with Yitzchak. Rachel also had trouble conceiving a baby. The Tenach mentions the wife of Manoach, Hannah, the woman from Shunam and Ruth as other famous women who had difficulty conceiving.
One out of six couples currently have fertility troubles. This effect is compounded in our day and age, when couples put off marriage and childbearing for many more years than was traditional. For some women, getting a proper education or starting a career seems enticing at first. As they age, however, the odds of having a problem free pregnancy begins to diminish.
Infertility affects men as they age too. Abnormal blood supply, hormonal deficiencies, the use of various medications, alcohol, smoking and drugs can all negatively impact the odds of easily conceiving a baby.
The good news is that often couples can be treated successfully, and overcome the causes of their infertility. Modern methods of treatment include the use of hormones, medicines, surgical corrections and various forms of assisted reproduction,such as artificial insemination or in-vitro fertilization.
The effects of infertility can be emotionally devastating. Watching their peers go on to start a family while a couple has difficulty, can leave the couple feeling left behind and envious. The Gemara (Pesachim 113b) even opines that a couple without children are considered as if they were excommunicated by Heaven. Rachel famously tells Jacob, “Give me children, or else I am as good as dead,” (Bereishit 30:1). Jacob has the first recorded marital fight in the Bible, when he angrily answers Rachel, saying, “Am I a substitute for God, who has withheld children from you?” Elkanah similarly rebukes his wife, Hannah, stating, “Why are you so upset? Aren’t I better to you than 10 sons would have been?” (1 Samuel 1:8).
Rachel — like Sarah before her — gives her handmaiden to her husband, hoping to adopt and raise the ensuing children as her own. With Bilhah and Zilpah, this turned out to be a workable solution. With Hagar and her son, Yishmael, it did not work out as well for Sarah.
The Gemara (Yevomot 64a) tries to explain that many of our ancestors were barren, because God desired their prayers. However, this may not always be a satisfying answer to those couples who have difficulty conceiving.
Rabbi Paysach Krohn — using a different approach — related a story about a woman who came crying to him because she could not conceive; while many of her friends were having babies more easily. He told her of the Gemara (Baba Kama 92a) which stated that when an individual prays for another who has a similar problem, their prayers will be answered first. She made it her mission to find out the names of other women who had similar fertility issues and prayed for them. Within a year, she called him joyfully and asked him to be the “mohel” of her new baby boy. Her prayers had been answered.
The PUAH Institute is an Israel-based, international organization that works with Jewish couples who have fertility problems. PUAH was founded in 1990, at the request of Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, to bridge the gap between fertility treatment and Jewish law. PUAH advisors embody a unique synthesis of rabbinical knowledge and specialized training in modern reproductive medicine to provide the best guidance possible, free of charge. Other similar agencies geared towards helping Jewish couples struggling with fertility issues include: Hasidah, Yesh Tikva and A Time.
While, at first, it may seem sad at first to read their stories; perhaps, the Torah is relating the stories of the many famous infertile couples to give us hope. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Manoach’s wife, Hannah and the others were, indeed, initially heartbroken at not being able to conceive.
However, if we think about it, all of these stories had happy endings. Of course, there was a lot of prayer involved. At times, it even seemed miraculous... Still, these stories all end alike in that all of these women, eventually, had children who had an outstanding effect of Jewish history. Their extraordinary efforts paid off...
Perhaps, this is why we bless our daughters to be like our matriarchs, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. While many of them had difficulty conceiving children, ultimately, they persevered and were rewarded with healthy, successful children. They merited to build a “bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael.”
May we all be blessed in our efforts to build our families. Maimonides (Ishut 15:16) states, “He who adds a Jewish life to the world is as if he built an entire world.” Hopefully, this will come easily to our young couples seeking to conceive. If not, may they take comfort in reading the stories in the Torah about the many heroines in our past, who did whatever it took to get their prayers answered.
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist and a member of the American Psychology-Law Society. He is past president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He is the coordinator of Bikur Cholim/Chesed at Congregation Torah Ohr in Boca Raton, Florida. He can be reached at [email protected]