Until 2008, I read Rachel’s demand to Jacob—“Give me children, or I shall die” (Genesis 30:1)—with a sense of enlightened remove. What modern woman would feel this way? There was no way I ever would. I was a person whose self-worth could not possibly be predicated simply on my ability to bear children.
And yet, in 2008, my ob/gyn told me—with the coldness of clinical detachment, and potentially with a hint of irritation—that if I wanted to have children, I would need to see a fertility specialist. As she gave me a referral, dismissing me to the care of someone else, I stared at her feeling entirely empty. I had a job, a career, fancy degrees, a wonderful spouse, good friends, and very little else to complain about. But, as it dawned on me that my reproductive system was not functional, suddenly nothing else mattered.
Rashi, in explaining Rachel’s words, cites the rabbinic statement that someone who does not have children is hashuv ke-meit, considered like someone who is dead (Bereishit Rabbah 71:6; Nedarim 64b). I had always thought this was hyperbole.
I was one of six children. It never occurred to me that I might one day find myself in Rachel’s shoes. I knew, intellectually, that not every woman gave birth every two years like clockwork the way my mother did, but my lived experience was a neighborhood where our family was one of the smaller ones on the block.
As one round of treatment after another ended in failure, I found myself feeling truly hashuv ke-meit. When a car ride with friends was crowded with talk of diapers and sleep training, I wanted to curl up and disappear. When I looked around the room at the fertility clinic, I perceived a room full of women who looked beaten and broken. I don’t know if they truly felt that way or if I just couldn’t imagine any of them felt otherwise.
Infertility can be a lonely journey, marked with shame and secrecy. In this journey, the voices of Rachel, Rebecca, and Sarah felt like stories of comrades in an ancient struggle. Most striking to me was the voice of Sarah, whose anguish cried out from the many layers of her story, in a voice that is both of its time and timeless.
Sarah first shows up as Sarai. We know from the very beginning, before she leaves Haran, that she is infertile (Genesis 11:30). A midrash also tells us that she is named Yiskah because she is “sokhah be-ruah ha-kodesh,”—she has the ability to see through holy inspiration (Sanhedrin 69b). We hear a lot about her infertility, as well as her legendary beauty. Her access to ruah ha-kodesh is only hinted at in the Torah’s text. How must it have felt for this prophetess to be able to see beyond, but to find herself evaluated on the basis of her beauty or her infertility?
Avram and Sarai run into a famine when they first arrive in Canaan and head to Egypt where the Pharaoh, struck with Sarai’s beauty, takes her to his house and makes his intentions known. Here Midrash Rabbah tells us: “All that night Sarah was face down before God saying, ‘Master of the universe, Abraham left Haran with a promise, and I left with only faith. Abraham is outside the ship (i.e., the danger), and I am inside of it’” (Bereishit Rabbah 41:2).
This midrash makes a point rarely discussed: that God promises Avram wealth and fertility in return for his journey to Canaan, but he promises Sarai nothing. One can understand why Sarai comes to the conclusion that God’s promises simply don’t apply to her. “God has prevented me from giving birth,” she states, and she offers up her slave to Avram to bear him a child on the logic that “ulai ibaneh mi-menah”—perhaps I will be built from her (Genesis 16:2).
Before 2008, I probably would have told you that I would never go through IVF. If I couldn’t get pregnant naturally, I would find fulfillment in other aspects of my life or “just” adopt. In 2008, I realized this might be the right answer for some women, but not for me. I desperately wanted to get pregnant, nurse, give birth, and name a child after my mother of blessed memory. I wanted that child to have a biological link to me and to her. This would have sounded foolish to me in 2006, but by 2012, after four years of failed treatments, I felt defective, like a woman whose parts simply didn’t function properly, and sometimes like my very womanhood was in question. My story would end with my passing from this world. No one would carry it forward.
Midrash Rabbah further comments on Sarai’s infertility: “Whoever has no child is like one who is dead, like one who is destroyed.” I do not think that every woman feels this way. Some women genuinely do not want to have children. For me, though, I viscerally understood Sarai’s willingness to do what seems truly desperate, to offer her slave as a surrogate. The midrash adds, “We build only what was destroyed” (Bereishit Rabbah 45:2).
One summer during college, I spent some time in Oxford where I wandered through the Ashmolean Museum and encountered an exhibit full of little figurines of Canaanite gods and goddesses. I discovered a world obsessed with fertility. In this context, Sarai’s statement attributing her infertility to God is a radical statement of faith. “I know the source of my affliction: it is not as people say [of a barren woman]—‘he needs a talisman, she needs a charm’—but rather it is God who has kept me from giving birth” (Bereishit Rabbah 45:2). She is not bothered by the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people. In a world where fertility of earth and womb was a test of a God’s power, Sarai knew Avram had to have a son, whether or not she was the one to bear him. She does not pretend that this union between Avram and Hagar will bring her happiness. She merely says, ulai ibaneh mi-menah. There is only a sliver of hope that this plan will benefit her. Avram listens to her, according to the midrash, because she speaks with ruah ha-kodesh, even though she turns out to be blind to her own future as the mother of Isaac.
To give birth is extraordinarily difficult and painful, even in the best of circumstances. When I finally held my first child, in 2013, I realized I would never see any woman who has given birth in the same light. To go through this and survive! That a real-life child comes out! To hold a beautiful baby breathing softly on your chest and feel so overjoyed and so physically wrecked. I wanted to laugh. It happened! Really, it did! To name a first child born after so much trial, Yitzhak makes so much sense. All who hear my story shall laugh, with joy, with incredulous disbelief.
We named our first child Eliana—God answered. Our second, brought into being with almost as much hard work, is Natanel—God gave. There are exclamation points at the end of these names, and a surprised giggle, followed by a sigh.
Every child is a miracle, but the child born of struggle is tangibly, achingly so. I feel Sarah’s panic as she sees Ishmael threaten her hard-won Isaac. Perhaps Abraham was right to be distressed when she tells him to expel Ishmael and Hagar, but God takes Sarah’s side: “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice” (Genesis 21:12)
A midrash on this verse states, “From here you can learn that Abraham was secondary to Sarah in prophecy” (Shemot Rabbah 1:1). This midrash is stunning. How could this be? If Sarah was such a great prophetess, even greater than Abraham, how is it possible that she never foresaw the birth of Isaac? Why does she laugh, incredulous, when the angels announce she will bear a son? Why does this laughter seem more bitter than elated?
The answer to this question lies in the haftarah for Parashat Vayeira. Here, the prophet Elisha tells the Shunamite woman that she will bear a son “ka-eit hayah” in exactly a year, in language obviously reminiscent of the angels’ announcement to Abraham. Despite the fact that she so respects Elisha that she builds him an apartment in her home and despite the fact that she calls him a Man of God, the Shunamite woman responds, “Do not delude your maidservant” (II Kings 4:16). Constant disappointment, I know well, can put a person in a dark place, which no candle can illuminate. Infertility can make even the fiercely independent Shunamite woman afraid to hope. It can also make the greatest prophetess blind.
The voices of our infertile foremothers in the Bible remain shockingly and bracingly relevant. Personally, I treasure them. They remind me that my experience, with both its dark moments and its golden hours, is by no means exceptional. They are also a reminder to us all to be sensitive to the quiet struggles of infertility, miscarriage, and childbirth that are so common among us.
But this cannot be the only reason the Bible tells these stories.
There is another stunning reality exposed by this midrash. If Abraham is the lesser of the two prophets in this marriage, why is this story mostly about Abraham? Why isn’t this the story of Sarah who left Haran? Why is it not she who receives promises of wealth and fertility to bring a new nation into being? Why do we see only one mention of God speaking to her, and only to chastise her? Why is there no record of Sarah’s prophecies? Why is her story framed mostly by her fertility struggles?
Well, the answer is obvious. Sarah was a woman, and so it was Abraham, perhaps the lesser prophet—and perhaps no more righteous, but male—who was able to be the leader who propels this story forward. After all, in the ancient Near East, what would have been crazier than a man smashing idols and claiming there was but one unseen God (Bereishit Rabbah 38:13)? Well, of course, it would be a woman doing these things.
So the stories of infertility and pain are a reminder that these women, however divinely inspired they might have been, had only one way of being part of this story, and that was to give birth to the next generation. In this sense, God’s statement to Abraham is meant as a corrective.
“Kol asher tomar eilekha Sarah, shema be-kolah.”
“All that Sarah tells you, listen to her voice.”
All that she says—not just when she is speaking about fertility or motherhood, but on all topics. After all, this woman received no promises when she left Haran; she left only with her faith. She was already known as an “akarah,” a woman who cannot bear children, while his ability to bear children was still an open question. He won acclaim wherever he went, while she likely endured ridicule for spurning the local fertility cults. Abraham enriches himself by giving her away twice. Sarah gives Abraham her slave in the hopes of at least getting an honorable mention in the final credits of the story of this Israelite nation. The slave gets pregnant right away and mocks her. Abraham has many children, but Sarah has only one, and she dies before he gets married, and she never sees her grandchildren. Abraham may have had ten tests, but Sarah likely endured many more. Not the least of which is that though she was the greater of the two prophets, she is silenced on all subjects not connected to fertility and motherhood.
This, God tells Abraham, is not as it should be. All that Sarah says, God tells Abraham, is worth hearing as they work together to create this nation.
Have things changed in the Modern Orthodox community since Sarah’s time? In many ways, the past fifty years or so have brought about a revolution. There are batei midrash full of women poring over pages of Talmud. It is no longer unusual to see a woman give a dvar Torah at a synagogue. There are respected female Torah scholars, heads of school, and synagogue presidents. An increasing number of women are graduating from Orthodox yeshivot with rabbinic-level qualifications, whether or not they are officially recognized as rabbis. In ascertaining what to do on issues of fertility and taharat ha-mishpahah, a woman can now turn to a Yoetzet Halakhah. Orthodox women are no longer defined solely as caregivers and bearers of children, though most of us continue to deeply cherish these roles. This is wonderful.
And yet, women remain glaringly absent from membership of mainstream Modern Orthodox institutions such as the RCA, Beth Din of America, and most va’ads. These are the institutions that decide what role women can have in the community and in the synagogue, as well as how they will be treated in matters of conversion, marriage, and divorce. This is largely because these institutions require semikhah for membership while opposing semikhah for women. As membership is required for active participation, women effectively have no voice in communal halakhic decision-making. Perhaps, you say, we women need not worry—after all, the men who make these decisions have wives and daughters and sisters, many of whom are Torah scholars as well. They must be naturally aware of the female perspective.
The Bible’s stories of infertility are critical because they openly challenge this assumption. God tells Abraham that Sarah will have a son, and Abraham simply says to God, “If only Ishmael can live before You” (Genesis 17:18), seemingly oblivious to Sarah’s aching desire for a child of her own. When Rachel tells Jacob she feels like she is dead, he reacts in anger (Genesis 30:2). Tamar must take extreme measures to force Judah to take her perspective into account (Genesis 38). Hannah, finding herself infertile, is heartbroken, and her husband blithely tells her that she has nothing to complain of since he is better to her than ten sons could ever be (I Samuel 1:8). The deafness to the female experience is darkly comical and strikingly familiar.
I discovered, in my struggles with fertility, that many specialists in the field were men. Going through this process, as a woman accustomed to ideals of modesty, meant agreeing to all sorts of indignities. I also encountered deafness to the internal experience of the patient on the examining table. This is not because these doctors—or our forefathers, for that matter—were bad men. They were men genuinely motivated by a desire to help, but they were not women. I am ever thankful to the female medical professionals who helped me feel human despite the humiliations large and small, the injections, the nausea, the pain, the failures, the heartbreak, and the blood. I will never forget the sublime sympathy of the doctor who told me about her own miscarriage as I went through mine.
The word “shema” can mean to listen with empathy, as in “Vayishma elokim et-kol ha-na’ar—and God heard the voice of the boy (Ishmael)” (Genesis 21:17). This is a good start, but to listen, as in God’s corrective to Abraham, is to recognize that you cannot speak for someone else’s experience, needs, and wants. To truly listen is to allow a voice to sway a decision.
God’s call to Abraham to listen to Sarah’s voice demands that women be active participants in the halakhic decision-making process, most critically for decisions regarding the role of women in the rabbinate and in synagogue ritual, in marriage and in divorce, but ideally on all issues, large and small.
Kol asher tomar eilekha Sarah shema be-kolah.
All that Sarah says, listen to her voice.