Mishpatim: Childlessness

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 Birthing in New Ways

Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

What I read [last week’s article, Moment of Truth] was very moving and beautiful. My only question is the last line about the children. What if one does not have children? It seems sometimes there is so much emphasis on that that if one doesn’t have children they are left out and not considered. Please clarify. Thank you.

A very important question indeed.

The gift of children is perhaps the greatest gift of all. The Psalmist writes: “Children are a Divine inheritance; the fruit of the womb His reward.” The Bible considers it to be the ultimate blessing: G-d created the human being, male and female, and blessed them: Be fruitful and multiply.

Virtually every tradition and culture places the highest premium on having children – building a family and home. The ostensible reason is obvious: Children are our future. Life ends if we do not propagate. Even according to the heartless evolutionary view of nature, perpetuation of the species is the cardinal rule of existence.

Torah tradition in particular is built around children: Education, the Passover Seder, births, weddings and celebrations – all orbit around the family nucleus. Attempts throughout history to replace the nuclear family (like the kibbutz movement in the last century) have all failed.

This of course only amplifies the question for singles or couples that were not blessed with children—are they left out? Why would they be deprived of such a fundamental blessing?

[We also can’t ignore those that have made an active choice not to have children for whatever reason—but that deserves a separate discussion].

Before addressing this huge and life transforming issue, allow me to state a big disclaimer: I am honored to be the father of two wonderful children (boy and girl), who bring me only profound joy. I therefore feel unable—absolutely unable—to put myself in the shoes of anyone who has not (yet) been blessed with children. Frankly, I would consider it quite presumptuous for me (or any parent for that matter) to pontificate to a parentless individual how to cope with the challenge of childlessness.

Yet, through my life travels I have also been honored to meet many women and even men who suffer deep anguish over not having been blessed with children. And they have turned to me (and I am sure to others) for some solace, explanation or suggestion—anything to help relieve their pain and answer their questions to G-d, to life, to themselves.

At times I have been questioned for extolling the gift of children to an audience that included single women and men, or married couples, who did not have children. Truth be told, it would be equally unfair to repress discussing the beauty of children because some people may be offended. We must always be very sensitive around an issue that touches deep emotional chords; but this should not cause us to distort or avoid appreciating our blessings.

Yet, childlessness is a critical topic that profoundly affects many of us. And as such it must be addressed. As a parent myself with no experience of childlessness, my only ability and right to speak about it is based not on my own thoughts and experiences, but those that I have been blessed to study and learn from my teachers and from the Torah, and above all—from my primary mentor, the Rebbe, who himself was (biologically) childless.

***

First and foremost, our hearts must go out to anyone who has attempted to have a child and been unable to conceive, or has reached an age when they no longer can naturally have children. This is equally true, both for women and men, who have been unable (for whatever reason) to find their soul-mate, marry and build a family (though one can argue that childlessness causes women more suffering than men). As it is with any emotional distress, trying to minimize it or explain it away rationally is simply arrogant if not outright stupid and insensitive.

I have consoled far too many women in their 40’s and on for their personal sorrow and regrets over not having tried to have children earlier in their lives (which, of course, always makes it very sad to see how many people who are naturally able to have children choose not to).

Beyond compassion and sensitivity, the big question is: Why would G-d deprive any person from the great blessing and mitzvah of having children?

The ultimate answer, like the answer to all questions about the suffering innocent, is that Judaism doesn’t ask “why?” but “what?”—“what can we do about it?”

We do not know the mysterious ways of the Divine. Why, for instance, some people are blessed to be born into healthy homes and nurturing parents, and others into dysfunctional and abusive homes? Why some children are born handicapped (G-d forbid)? Why are some of us given an easier life than others? Why each of us has our own particular strengths and challenges?   All these questions, and many, many more, may never be answered.

However, not understanding “why” does not make us weaker. Because we have the power and control to answer a bigger question: “What will we do about it?”.  “Why?” is actually the question of a victim; “what we can do?” is the question of the proactive.

A cardinal rule of existence—and perhaps the single most empowering statement—is that G-d would not give us a challenge we cannot handle. With every obstacle, every deprivation, every loss that we may experience we are also given a special “package” of strength not only to counteract the negative impact, but to achieve greater heights. For every thing we are missing, we gain something in return.

Obviously, we have to try everything humanly possible to achieve our goals, whether it’s to find a spouse, have a child or to overcome any impediment. But after we have done everything in our power (and objective friends testify to that fact), then we are assured that while we may never know why we had to take another course, we must always know that we have the power to actualize our greatest potential if not via a regular course than through an irregular one. Regular may be easier and less challenging, but it also can be ordinary; irregular can lead us into the extraordinary.

The same applies to childlessness. What is really lies at the heart of the blessing of children? The ability to create life and to influence the world forever. Through your children you leave a part of yourself in this world; they continue your life’s contributions, as you continued your parents’ legacy. In one word children reflect eternity. The only way we can achieve immortality is through our children perpetuating our lives; and when our values are eternal ones (instead of temporary ones), than they can live on forever through our following generations.

Chassidic thought puts it this way: Birthing a child is the embodiment—the only one—of the Infinite Divine power to create (koach ha’ein-sof). Every thing we produce and accomplish in this world is reshaping one form into another; all man-made products are building one something from another something (yesh m’yesh). Conceiving and giving birth to a child is true creation: a new life out of nowhere—something from nothing.

When all goes well and you find your appropriate spouse and G-d (the third partner) blesses you with a child (or children), you have actualized the Divine creative process of birth. Now, your Divine responsibility as parents is to nurture, educate and imbue your child with eternal values; to teach your child to discover his/her mission in illuminating our universe.

The same G-d that blesses us with children—no one would suggest that a child is a man-made creation—also gave some of us the challenge of childlessness, and the strength to deal with it.

The original Matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, as well as Chana and many other great women in history, were naturally barren, and it was only though their heartfelt prayers that G-d opened their wombs. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 45:4) offers various explanations, one being that G-d “desires” the prayers of the righteous, and therefore wanted that they cry out, and bring down the blessing through their prayers. Indeed, the Rosh Hashana is a day, a day of prayer, when the barren women are remembered by G-d (Rosh Hashana 11a), which is why the Torah reading of that day begins: “And God remembered Sara…” [Click here for a detailed article on this topic, titled Kol Akara: The Voice of the Barren Woman].

Now, when birth doesn’t happen (for whatever reason—natural or human error), we must say, according to the above mentioned rule, that this person has the power to achieve immortality and find fulfillment in other ways.

[Indeed, a fascinating Zohar (the classic text of Jewish Mysticism) tells us that couples who join in sacred union, even if they are beyond child-bearing age, conceive a soul even when the soul does not descend into a body! If they are blessed then the soul will connect to a body, but even if not a new soul was conceived].

What can possibly replace actual children?!

Tells us the Talmud (Sanhedrin 19b) that “one who teaches another Torah is considered as if s/he gave birth to that individual.”

This is derived from the verse (Numbers 3:1) that describes the biological children of Aaron as “children of Aaron and Moses,” because Moses was their teacher.

This is not some cute patronization. It means quite literally that when you teach, educate and inspire someone with Divine truths you actually “give birth” to them. Think about a mentor or teacher that may have said just the right word to you at the right moment in your life – was it not like giving you a new life? Unfortunately, such epiphany-like experiences are uncommon. But sometime a teacher can be more of a parent to us than our biological parents (especially in this dysfunctional age).

In fact there were Chassidim who would celebrate their birthdays not on the day of their biological birth, but on the day that they met their Rebbe for the first time!

So the void of childlessness may never be filled, nor the pain relieved, but it gives us the opportunity to (re)think (about) the purpose of our lives. The purpose being—to change the world; and we have that power by touching others forever.

Children are our fruit; fruit that in turn will bear new fruit. A true mentor/educator is a gardener that lays seeds, nurtures the ground, waters the plants, and changes the future.

Having natural children is a great blessing—a blessing everyone should merit. But if that is not (yet) one’s destiny, never, never should we feel that things are lost. A person in that situation must take a more difficult route of “giving birth” in new ways through inspiring and illuminating the soul of others. This is definitely a harder job—one that doesn’t come on a platter as do natural born children—but is also doesn’t lend itself to the complacency that biological parents can have to their children, and actually has the ability to shape and influence people in more profound ways than actual parents do.

[On a mystical level—I knew that I couldn’t avoid a Samach-Vav connection—we can perhaps say that the childless individual reflects the state of “There is one who is alone with no second, and he has neither son nor brother” (Ecclesiastes 4:8). “One who is alone” is the level of the Divine Infinite Light that does not manifest in relationships (“He has neither son nor brother”). The concept of relationships is only in the way the Divine manifests in the finite—in the structure of the ten sefirot (Ohr HaTorah on Kohelet, p. 1115). However, the ultimate purpose is to unite the infinite and the finite, the “one who is alone” with “son” and “brother.” Natural parents do this through having children; the rest of us do it through “birthing” students].

Practically speaking, let’s go back to where we began: After all the discussions and elaborations, there are really no words that can truly console someone who is suffering from the grief of childlessness. “Why?” may not be a question we should ask, but it is easier said than done.

So if you have a relative or friend in this situation, be there for them. Be extra sensitive—not treat them as “nebech” (pathetically needy) case, but as a human being that deserve dignity like every person does.

Above all (whether it be you or your friend), remember that for every challenge we were given additional powers. When faced with the challenge around children—we must work overtime to inspire each other to find ways to express our unique strengths to educate and inspire others.

And always remember: Miracles do happen. We cannot rely or expect them to happen. But they do happen.

I want to conclude with a blessing (birchat hedyot): May all those who are in need of children be blessed with healthy offspring. May those who are in need of finding their soulmate – be blessed to met the right person and to recognize that this is the right person. May those who were blessed with children fully appreciate their gift, and not only serve as biological parents but also as spiritual ones.

And most of all – may those that are unable to have children at this point, be comforted and find the strength to recognize their unique skills to birth and change for the better the lives of people they come in contact with.

May we all inspire, illuminate and educate many students—and give birth to many “children,” and shape the future forever.

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Anonymous
14 years ago

Dear Reb Simon,
Thank you for your essay on childlessness. My husband & I struggled w/infertility for many years, until pregnancy became an absolute impossibility, due to surgery & risks to my health. Had I read your words during my struggle I might have found them insensitive … but now I find they are true. I now have found other ways to serve Hashem, in my work as a health care provider, in my work in the community. Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, has served as a great inspiration to me. Though childless, she founded an organization that saves & improves many lives through hospitals in Israel, and educational and social programs for young people.
I appreciate your insights.

SHELLIE NEUMARK
14 years ago

GREAT ARTICLE RABBI. EVERYONE SENT DOWN HERE HAS A PURPOSE. NOT ALL OF US HAVE CHILDREN. SINGLE PARENTS HAVE BABIES IN-VITRO AND ADOPTION A WAY TO PARENT. BUT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS TO UNDERSTAND THE GIFT OF YOUR LIFE AND TO MAKE EACH DAY SPECIAL BY HELPING OTHERS ANY WAY WE CAN, THIS HELPS NURTURE YOUR OWN SPIRITUAL SELF. NOT AN EASY SUBJECT.

Anonymous
14 years ago

As a Rabbi myself and a big admirer of yours, I have to tell you that I love your articles. Not only do I share them, but I read them for myself. I gain a lot from them.

However, as someone who suffers from male infertility, and only through a great miracle had a baby, I have to tell you that I find your article, however well meaning, very insensitive. Not because you mean to be, but because someone who hasn’t suffered in that way, really doesn’t understand it at all. Nothing replaces children. Before my wife and I conceived, we asked for many blessings, only to receive answers such as: your students are your children. These answers were tremendously frustrating.

From my personal experience, most of us who suffer from infertility don’t appreciate hearing such things, even well intentioned.

Response:

I deeply appreciate your writing to me and am honored by your confidence.

I understand and accept your feelings that that my words were insensitive.

My sincere question to you is this: What would you suggest I should have written? What do you suggest I should tell people who ask me these questions? Do you suggest that I just ignore it and not address it because I myself am a parent?

Simon

Hi Simon,

Thanks for your reply.

First of all, you have no need to apologize. You did an amazing job trying to explain the topic; I just don’t know if there really is an answer/solution to it. Additionally, as someone who hasn’t gone through this issue firsthand, it makes it hard to accept what you write.

I sort of look at childlessness as a personal holocaust for that person/couple. That person/couple doesn’t have continuation. It is a personal tragedy of the highest order (in my opinion).

In any event, I can’t really give you advice as what/if to say, but I thought I’d share my thoughts with you b/c I know you are very influential and I really respect your thinking.

I just wanted to share my perspective with you as one who suffers with this medical condition, a medical condition that touches a very deep point in our humanity.

Thanks again.

Anonymous
14 years ago

Kol Ha Kavod

This is one of your best and I can identify with this email since my younger sister who turned 50 never conceived and sadly ended a marriage two years ago. She has been an awesome teacher for 28 years of Special Ed students. This needs to be shared with everyone. Bless you.

As a mother who has two beautiful daughters and Boruch Hashem both with Jewish boyfriends, my younger daughters friend is a baal teshuva and I met him Shabbos Yisro. Shabbos Yisro, I also celebrated my 8 year anniversary studying Chasidus with my rebbe, my beloved friend who translated the text Classical Kabbalah by Rav Brandwein. I look back at that time as a rebirth of my own soul. That Shabbos, Shlomo and I sat and learned about the Parsha and Tu BShvat. It was truly a nes gadol for me as great as crossing the Red Sea to be able to experience Shabbos with a young man who has such Yiddishkeit.

This Monday Rav Brandwein will be in my home and teaching my students, whom I feel I have birthed as well. They are adults who had no connection to Torah and this Pesach will be one year that we will be learning together. I was supposed to teach them a course on Kabbalah for six weeks yet six weeks is now an ongoing class. The Kabbalah class has been broadened to integrating Torah into the class as well.

Who knew that I would be one day a schlicha for Rav Brandwein for spreading the light of Chasidus. Thank you always for your teachings and I have loved the teachings of the Samach Vav as a side note.

Shabbat Shalom. Rosh Chodesh Tov.

To protect the members of my family I choose not to disclose any names including my own.

Anonymous
14 years ago

I really enjoyed this article on childlessness. It was well put. Sensitively worded.

Anonymous
14 years ago

I knew an lady who said, I have no children, but, I have lots and lots of grandchildren. She meant that lots of children viewed her as their grandmother. It was true.

The cow wants to give milk even more than the calf wants the milk.

There may be a way to give, anyway, without having actually born children.

Where would we be without our uncles and aunts. So, maybe there can be uncles and aunts.

Eric Sander Kingston
14 years ago

To have a child is to bring something into this world to teach. But to not have a child, one can still teach others. We are all sons and daughters of the Torah, and Whoever teaches his son, teaches not only his son, but his sons, son and so on, until the end of generations. The Talmud

Dori S. Berger
14 years ago

G-d saw my role as parent in the following way:

I was not able to conceive children. We tried everything short of torturing my body with drugs, tests, and the various methods of artificial impregnation. What G-d did instill in me was hochma ! I had the insight to understand that a natural born child was not in my scripts, but that becoming a parent was an absolute necessity! So I researched until I was able to have a child — by adoption. In fact, we have two beautiful daughters, five years apart in age, who are now beautiful married adults.

The point is, becoming a parent is not the same as becoming pregnant.

If there are children in need of parenting, then they should not be abandoned. That I also see as G-ds will. No, it was not ordained that I bear a child, but it was scripted that I parent at least two children! The love, the caring, the possessiveness, the identify of these children as ours, is as profound and permanent as if I had born them. Yes, they do know that they are adopted. It makes no difference to them. One of our daughters once explained, She [the birth mother] gave me life…. but you gave me my identity! This is who I am.

Giving life is a simpler act than shaping an identity! She, the birth mother, carried for 9 months. I carried for the rest of this childs life!! THAT was Hashems message to me… to my children… and that was the support and the blessing I received. So there is no reason for a childless couple, except by specific choice to be childless. One of our daughters decided not to become a parent. The other now has two children. Both events were by their choice.

My choice was to parent — in any way that I could. And this act Heaven supported!