Judaism: The Pain of Childlessness
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish...
The Agony of Infertility
The agony of the childless is difficult. Our Sages said: “A man who is childless is accounted as dead” (Nedarim 64b), as it is written: “Rachel realized that she was not bearing any children to Jacob. She was jealous of her sister and said to Jacob, “Give me children! If not, let me die!” (Genesis 30:1). Our Sages taught us this so that people know just how great the grief of the childless is, and seek mercy for them to conceive (Tosafot, ibid). Couples who already have children but hopelessly wish for more are also likely to be extremely sad, especially if they live in an environment where having large families is the norm.
Attempting to Understand the Meaning of Suffering
The question is: What is the significance of this suffering? Is it a punishment for one’s sins, and in order to have children one must awaken and do teshuva (repent)? Or perhaps one’s fate was determined even before being born, and he cannot be blamed for his torment?
The answer is very complex. Sometimes trials and tribulations stem from sins, other times from fate, and occasionally, a combination of both. Sometimes repentance and prayer are helpful, and other times not; the matter depends on countless factors. I will begin to explain.
The Significance of ‘Mazal’ and Fate – Raba and Rav Chisda
Our Sages said: ” Raba said: Life, children and sustenance depend not on merit but [rather on] mazal (Mo’ed Katan 28a). “Life” is the number of years a person lives, “children” – the number of children he will have, “sustenance” – his livelihood. All of these are determined by themazal of a person at the time of his birth, and not according to his merits. The proof of this is that Raba and Rav Chisda were both righteous individuals, and in times of severe drought, both of their prayers were answered. Nevertheless, their fate was totally different.Rav Chisda lived ninety-two years, while Raba lived just forty years.
In Rav Chisda’s house there were sixty weddings, and in the home of Raba there were sixty cases of bereavement. Rav Chisda’s house abounded with wealth, and even the dogs were fed well, while in Raba’s house they were poor, and could not even afford to buy cheap barley bread for all the members of the family. Similarly, our Sages said: “There is no reward for a mitzvah in this world,” i.e., the reward for mitzvoth and punishment for sins is not paid in this temporary world, but in the eternal world of truth (Kiddushin 39b).
In our terms, mazal is called fate. Just as we know today that at the time of conception a person’s genetic map is formed, determining if he will be tall or short, intelligent or slow, healthy or sick, ugly or beautiful, similarly, our Sages said that at the time of a person’s birth, his mazal is determined with regard to “life, children, and sustenance.”
Can Jews Change their Mazal?
Nevertheless, there is apparently a dispute between our Sages on this issue (Shabbat 156a); according to Rabbi Hanina, Israel does have mazal, namely, Jews are also under the rule of mazal, and within this framework, which is not subject to change, they must choose to do good, thus correcting themselves and the world. According to Rabbi Yochanan, there is no mazal for Israel, in other words, Israel has the power in their prayers and actions to change their mazal.
However, the commentators have already clarified that everyone is in agreement that mazal does have influence, and all agree that more than any other nation, the nation of Israel at times has more power to change their mazal through prayer and good deeds. The dispute is whether it is a common feature that a Jew can change his mazal, or only in exceptional cases (see Tosafot, Shabbat, ibid, and Ritva and Ran, ibid).
A Few Words about the Significance of Suffering
Everyone has a certain destiny, according to which a person’s mazal is determined. Sometimes, in order to realize one’s destiny, it is good for him to be poor and suffer pain, and other times it is advantageous for him to be rich and healthy. Sometimes a person’s fate is sealed, and nothing he does will help him to escape it, except in very rare cases. Sometimes a person’s fate is not absolute and by sinning, tilts his fate to the negative and must suffer; if he does good deeds, he will merit greater blessing, even in this temporary world.
At times, the agony one suffers purifies and saves him from a greater evil, and in such a case if he is righteous, he will merit having trials and tribulations. In any event, as long as the world is not morally remedied, there will be people who suffer in agony, and by dealing with the anguish, the world is gradually purified from a moral perspective.
Making an Effort
Regarding the effort childless couples are required to make, both medically and spiritually, I hope to write about at another time. At present, I will attempt to further clarify the purpose of trials and tribulations.
Sometimes, all the prayers, repentance and strengthening in Torah and acts of kindness do not resolve the problem. Months and years pass, and a husband and wife are not able to have children. Maybe their fate is sealed and cannot be changed because the souls that they could have given birth to belong to another world, whose time has not yet arrived. It could be that if they were able to change their fate, the child born to them would be tremendously evil, seeing as he is unsuitable for his time, and therefore, God mercifully prevents them from having a child who would ‘bring down their old age to the grave in misery’.
Similarly, our Sages said (Berachot 10 a) that after the destruction and exile, the ministers of the nations mocked the nation of Israel for being barren and not receiving the blessing of having children in the in the Land. Israel answered them: ‘When evil dominates the Land, it is better to be barren and not give birth to wicked children who will go to hell, just as you will’. This is the meaning of the verse: “Shout for joy, O barren one, you who have borne no child; Break forth into joyful shouting and cry aloud, you who have not travailed; for the sons of the desolate one will be more numerous than the sons of the married woman says God” (Isaiah 54:1).
It is also written in several Jewish sources that the childless need to be careful not to plead too much in prayer, rather, to always ask God that if it is not good in His eyes for them to have a child, then they forgo on their request. Because sometimes Heaven knows that if children are born to them, they will be wicked or suffer in terrible agony, and in order to alleviate the parent’s distress, they are not granted children (Shevet Mussar 23:19).
Nevertheless, such couples should know that all the prayers, good deeds, and Torah they perform are not lost in vain, because even if such actions are not useful for themselves, they help other childless couples to conceive. And at any rate, they are beneficial for bringing tikkun olam closer, to the day when the souls of their children can be born.
The Importance of Love and Joy
And now we come to the essential tenets: The childless couple is faced with a tremendous, immense and awesome test: Will they drown in their sorrow and lose their faith and joy, or overcome their grief and increase their love, fulfill the mitzvah of onah (conjugal relations) joyfully, and always think of ways to add good and happiness for their family and friends. For in truth, although they are childless, their relationship has great intrinsic worth.
Love without Children
We have also learned that our Sages asked (Breishit Rabba 45:4), why our matriarchs were barren. One of the Sages explained: “So that they might lean on their husbands despite their beauty”. Another explained: “So that their husbands might derive pleasure from them, for when a woman is with child she is disfigured and lacks grace. Thus, the whole ninety years that Sarah did not bear, she was like a bride in her canopy”. And so, from a certain aspect, couples who do not have children can increase and enhance the love, passion and joy between them.
This is the meaning of what the Sages of the Kabbala clarified, that every conjugal relation performed out of love and passion, adds an abundance of life and blessing in the world. And the Shlah (Shnei Luchot HaBrit) wrote: “From every conjugal relation performed in holiness, something good results. And even if one’s wife does not become pregnant … a holy soul comes into being… because from every conjugal relation a soul is produced, and from these souls, others are born”. Therefore, “Abraham had conjugal relations with Sarah even though she was barren, and G-d forfend thinking that it was in vain.”
The Zohar explained that by means of the complete conjugal connection with devotion and passion of the two righteous individuals, Abraham and Sarah, souls were created in the upper worlds that later descended and were born as children to different families. And when these same children grew up they were drawn to Abraham and Sarah and converted by them, and in regards to them the verse says, “and the soul that they had made in Haran” (Genesis 12:5).
Thus, when a childless couple overcomes the sadness and unites with devotion and passion, they become partners in bringing down souls to the world, giving them sparks of soul from their union.
Pairing for the World’s Sustenance
Moreover, when a childless couple succeeds in strengthening their faith despite the sufferings and sorrows, deepening their love and pleasing one another in the mitzvah of onah – they merit adding life and blessing to the world. Because their love has a special purity, for it is unconditional and not based on children born to them, rather, it is completely based on the very love between them, which contains an expression of the unity of God revealed in the world.
True, they did not have children, but they merited revealing the value of life itself, and therefore, add life and sustenance to all the worlds. Or as the Ari HaKadosh explained, that there are two kinds of couplings – one for the purpose of giving birth to souls, and the other for the purpose of life and sustaining the world’s (Sha’ar HaMitzvoth, Breishit, pg.7).
Indeed, spouses who do have children also merit fulfilling the second type of coupling for the purpose of life and sustaining the worlds when one’s wife is already pregnant, when she breastfeeds, or when she is older.
But since among childless couples this is their only type of union, it carries greater influence. And this is provided that through the love and joy between them, they are indeed able to break through the sadness, to see a better world, rejoice in their family and friends’ happy occasions, be productive, and do kind deeds for others, as much as they are able.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.