Just the other day my best friends had a bris for their son and my wife and I were honored with the ritual of kvater. If you’re not familiar, the mother hands my wife the baby, my wife hands it to me, and I walk through the crowd to present the week old boy to someone else. Kvater is considered a segulah (a propitious act) for childbirth. But after our third miscarriage less than a month earlier, it was an honor my wife and I almost turned down.
In the year since our first lost pregnancy, this would be our third kvater, second Simchas Torah pesicha (opening of the ark and another segulah for pregnancy), and a Yom Kippur davening that brought me to tears with each Shemonah Esrei. At a point one loses faith. Not with God. I still believe He runs the world and is personally involved in my life. But that He cares what I have to say? I’m not so sure. Granted my harshness comes from the pain. But when a person tries so hard and they don’t see results, with no feedback to course correct, it’s hard to put your all into it anymore.
The loss’s pain, compounded by incessant pregnancies in the community, the insistence on recommending we “talk to someone” who had a similar problem but now has five children, and all I’ve listed so far… it’s a bit too much right now. Don’t get me started on the separation required by Niddah during irregular cycles. And because of that, my prayers have been “phoned in” a bit. My learning is a little lacking. It would seem that the Shechinah (God’s presence on Earth) has departed.
Just before the bris, I realized it was parsha Lech Lecha, the Torah portion where God gives Abraham the mitzvah of bris milah. How appropriate. Lech Lecha is my bar mitzvah parsha so it has always had a special significance for me. But it wasn’t until after the bris that I also remembered it is the first place in the Torah where it mentions the struggle for child birth.
In chapter 15:1 God comes to Avram (not yet renamed Avraham) and says “Fear not Avram, I am your shield, your reward is very great.” To which Avram immediately replies, “My Master, Hashem, what will You give me since I continue to be childless…” The pain of infertility is so great in Avram’s mind that he cannot think of any other possible reward than a child. As if money, influence, and favor are all meaningless in comparison. But for Avram it’s more than just family planning. He wants to pass his ideology, the belief of monotheism, to the future generations. His desire for a child couldn’t possibly be more l’shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven).
It’s at the beginning of the next chapter that Sarai, his wife, makes a painful choice. “Avram’s wife Sarai had not borne him children. She had an Egyptian handmaid whose name as Hagar. Sarai said to Avram, “See now, Hashem has restrained me from having children; please, come to my handmaid and perhaps I will be built up through her.” Here the Torah gives us the first surrogacy.
I can’t imagine the pain it took for Sarai to get to this point. She desperately wants a child, but at the same time knows that for Avram it is part of his mission. Avram’s championed character trait was chessed, loving kindness. But Sarai was a complement to Avram, her trait was gevurah, the willpower of restriction. Acts of chessed were her test. This one must have been excruciating.
Sarai gives her handmade, Hagar, to Avram and after their first union, Hagar becomes pregnant. According to Rashi, it is because of this immediate success that Hagar thinks she is spiritually superior to Sarai. He quotes, “Hagar thought: Sarai pretends to be a righteous woman, but is not really righteous because she was not privileged to conceive all these years, where as I have become pregnant from the first marital union.” From this a rift erupts between Sarai and Hagar.
Sarai goes to Avram, blaming him. “The insult against me is your fault. I gave my maid to you and when she saw that she had conceived, I became slighted in her eyes. Let Hashem judge between me and you.” (Chapter 16:5). What is Avram’s part in all this? Is he simply the only place Sarai can go to express her anger? Should he have said no to Sarai’s suggestion in the first place? It was her idea!
Rashi interprets Sarai’s words saying, “When you prayed to Hashem, ‘What can You give me seeing that I go childless? You prayed only for yourself. But you should have prayed for both of us and I, too, would have been remembered with you.” It’s quite an accusation to think that Avram, the epitome of chessed, considering others needs first, wouldn’t think to pray for his wife. Perhaps Avram was so focused on the mission to pass on his legacy that he didn’t think of his wife’s part in it. Or maybe he thought that they were so united in their mission that to pray for Sarai would be redundant.
A New Approach
Whatever Avram’s reason, Sarai’s criticism appears accurate. In next week’s parsha, Vayera, Avram’s wife (then called Sarah) will be taken by Avimelech. Hashem punishes the king by afflicting Avimelech’s whole house with multiple plagues, one of which is the “restraining of every womb.” When Avimelech returns Sarah to Avraham, Avraham prays to God to heal the household. The very next verse in the Torah is, “Hashem remembered Sarah… and she conceived and Sarah gave birth.” (21:1). Rashi comments, “This section was placed here to teach that whoever prays for mercy for another and he needs the same thing, he will be answered first.”
I don’t need to be answered first, I would just like to be answered. I’m still in a place where I don’t believe any words will comfort me and my wife. (So if you see us after reading this, you don’t need to say anything.) The pain is too raw and the options we’re going to have to explore look scary and uncertain. The words of my Shemonah Esrei have become hollow. So for the next while, I think I’ll try this approach of praying for others. Perhaps these worries which have made it nearly impossible to be happy at the simchas of my friends and community members is the thing that really needs fixing. Hopefully, that will make me feel like my words matter again. Maybe connecting to others through my prayers will bring back my connection to Hashem.