(Delivered at Temple Beth El, Richmond, VA)
If you are Jewish and among the 7.4 million women suffering from infertility, as I was, you come to dread Rosh Hashanah. Today’s Torah portion about the birth of Isaac doesn’t bring much comfort to those longing for a child. Miracles like Sarah and Abraham’s are, to put it mildly, few and far between. And the message -- “Hey, if Sarah can have a child at 90, you still have hope!” – is infuriating. If medical intervention is unreliable, divine intervention feels even less likely.
Rosh Hashanah, and in particular this Torah portion, offer a painful reminder of barrenness. Infertility can affect our relationship with G-d, our feelings of self-worth, our marriages, and our relationship with those around us. The story of Sarah and Abraham’s infertility presents a rare instance when laughter appears in the Torah. When G-d promises Abraham that he: “will bless [Sarah], and moreover, [he] will give you a son by her,” Abraham asks “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old bear a child?” G-d answers, “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.” (Genesis 17:16-19). Isaac, not coincidentally, means “he who will laugh.” When Sarah learns that she is going to have a son (Genesis 18:10), she laughs out loud with scorn: “She looked at her stomach and said, ‘Is it possible that this womb shall bear a child? Can these withered breasts ever produce milk?’” (Gen. 18:12). G-d asked Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, Is anything too wondrous for the Lord? I will return to you at the same season next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” (18: 13-14).
As we know, Sarah eventually does conceive and birth a child. She says: “G-d has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” Whereas Sarah’s first instance of laughter arose out of disbelief, this second instance suggests a transformed woman whose skepticism has yielded to faith, a faith that importantly will be embraced by both Abraham and Isaac. Sarah’s laughter suggests the range of emotions each of us feels at different times in our lives -- skepticism, belief, or perhaps a combination of the two.
When E. and I were trying to have a child, we certainly experienced all of those emotions in addition to depression, exhaustion, and outright misery. For me, years of advanced medical treatment, needles, and high dosages of hormones produced few eggs that could be harvested during my last attempt at in-vitro. Of the paltry eleven eggs produced, only four fertilized. Of the four embryos only three were healthy enough to implant. Of the three, only two matured to fetuses. Of the two, only one survived to become my daughter M. Our second child, T., we always say, willed herself into the universe. When our infertility doctor learned about our natural conception, he threw his arms up into the air, shrugged, and burst out laughing.
When M. was born and the nurse placed her in my arms, I was struck with the unexpected realization that I have since shared with many other infertile women. At that moment, I knew M. could have been anyone. She could have come from a surrogate, another biological mother, an adoption agency, or even foster care. Any child would still have been my daughter.
The midrash says that when Sarah became pregnant, all the barren women became pregnant, all the deaf became capable of hearing, all the blind were given sight, all the mutes were cured, and all the madmen became sound of mind. Perhaps that was true – but it seems unlikely. Perhaps Sarah’s story teaches us that even for those who have been lucky enough to conceive, the feelings associated with infertility are as complex as Sarah’s laughter. Today, whether a woman overcomes infertility biologically, through adoption, or even accepts that she will never have a child, the pain of the experience never really disappears. If we are fortunate, we learn to accept our circumstances and perhaps grow more compassionate not only with ourselves but with the others among us who also carry their own heartbreak and almost certainly experience the ups and downs of life: laughter and bitterness, confusion and wonder.