There are many expectations of members of the Orthodox community. We expect our young men and women to work hard in college and pursue lofty professional goals. We expect young men and women to marry young. We expect young couples to start growing their families in a timely fashion. Along with all the excitement that fills the first years of marriage comes pressure to have children. “Nu—what’s taking so long?” inquire well-meaning, albeit overzealous, family members. For couples struggling to conceive, this communal expectation exacerbates the pain of infertility.
Aside from the unwanted explicit intrusions, there are other forms of pressure far more pernicious. How common is it for someone to casually inquire of a friend whom they have not seen in many years, “How many children do you have?” Why do so many people assume every couple is immediately blessed with children?
After learning that someone is married without children, a well-meaning follow-up question is often, “How long have you been married?” As innocuous as the question may seem, having to respond to this inquiry can be devastating to a childless couple. The couple may feel like answering the question is tantamount to announcing to the world their struggle with infertility.
It’s interesting to note that in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria, the Torah begins by outlining the laws of a woman who gives birth and then continues on to the laws of tzara’at—the Torah’s punishment for people who speak negatively about others. The connection between the two unrelated topics serves as a powerful lesson to us regarding increasing our sensitivity toward those who are waiting for children.
In order to understand the juxtaposition, we must remind ourselves of one important fact. Tzara’at is not simply a skin disease; it’s a physical manifestation of a spiritual illness. As such, the remedy for tzara’at does not come from a medical doctor. Rather, the Torah instructs a person stricken with tzara’at to seek out a kohen (priest), who carefully analyzes the skin discoloration to determine if the affliction is truly tzara’at. In fact, within the first eight verses of Leviticus chapter 13, there are no fewer than eight references to the fact that the kohen must view the tzara’at. Clearly, it is critically important that the kohen carefully visually examine the area in question.
By placing the laws of tzara’at immediately after the laws of childbirth, the Torah is making a profound point. We are all tempted to scrutinize others—especially in the area of childbearing. However, unless we are a kohen tasked with examining tzara’at, it’s not our job to analyze others. We must think and rethink the types of questions we so freely ask one another.
What types of assumptions are built into my inquiry? Could I make someone feel worse with my well-meaning words? Questions that automatically assume a husband and wife are blessed with children are hurtful.
This Shabbat, my Shul will participate in the “100 Shuls Project,” sponsored by Yesh Tikva. The purpose of this project is to raise awareness about the widespread challenges of infertility and to increase the sensitivity in our community towards those couples that are not yet blessed with children or are struggling to grow their families. As a community, we must learn to be more cautious in our assumptions—not all couples will fit into our communal mold. It’s our job to create an environment that is welcoming and caring for all, especially those still waiting for God’s blessings of children to arrive.
By Rabbi Zev Goldberg
Rabbi Zev Goldberg is the rabbi of the Young Israel of Fort Lee.