The major themes of Rosh Hashana? Teshuva? Kingship? Creation of the world? Or infertility. And although I’ve called it a hidden theme, it’s really hiding in broad daylight. It’s not spoken about much at all. After I wrote this post originally on Facebook a number of women who have firsthand experience of the topic messaged me to say that in none of their conversations or shul derashot had they heard it spoken about. The Facebook post received a lot of positive responses as did the Rosh Hashana derasha at Sixth St Synagogue in Manhattan that I gave on the topic. It should be spoken about more. Here goes.
Consider the readings: The first day’s Torah portion, Bereishit ch.21 – has God remembering Sara after so many years of pain of not having children and giving her a son. The haftara meanwhile, from Shmuel ch.1 – features the great sorrow of Hannah unable to have children, a husband Elkana who doesn’t understand her, and a co-wife who is both fertile and cruel
On the second day: we read Bereishit ch.22 – the akeida and the almost loss of the child Sara and Avraham had yearned for. This is followed by the Haftara from Yirmiyahu depicting Rachel, many years after her death, speaking from the mountains: a voice is heard in the heights, a bitter cry, Rachel is crying for her children, refusing to be comforted for them, for they are not’. Rachel, who in her lifetime, is the ultimate figure who struggles to have children, competes with her sister and is misunderstood by her husband and eventually dies in childbirth, becomes in her afterlife, the ultimate petitioner on behalf of her children.
I noticed this many years ago – you really have to be blind to miss it – when I first started to get into the Tanakh’s literary themes. Unfortunately this long preceded my emotional understanding. This was a cool piece of Biblical artistry but it didn’t touch real people that I knew. Only in recent years, watching too many of our closest friends struggling with infertility and miscarriage has it become clear to me that this is as relevant today as it was in ancient Canaan.
It doesn’t seem right that there is still something of a taboo around the subject. A couple of years ago, colleagues of ours ran a Friday night discussion for our students about infertility. Feedback from students was lukewarm – it wasn’t deemed relevant. But one day, not so far off, it will be relevant – if not for them personally, then for their close friends and family.
One of the most glorious things about the Jewish community is its love of family and children. And the flip-side of this is that one of the toughest experiences is being single in a community where most everyone else is married, or to be struggling to have children while everyone around seems abundantly fertile.
Not every message of the Yamim Noraim needs to be intensely spiritual. The fact that Chazal chose to center all four of Rosh Hashanna’s readings to a single topic should speak for itself.
If all people take from the Torah readings is a greater awareness and sensitivity – considering what to say and what not to say, understanding that not all people’s experiences are alike, that innocuous questions can cause pain, and knowing when to give friends some extra love and support – well, that would be no bad thing.