VAYIKRA 5777 - Jewish Infertility
Seemingly happy Jewish holiday rituals—Chanukah parties, Purim costumes, and especially Pesach Seders—can be unbearably sad for Jewish couples experiencing infertility. Elie Haller Salomon, who created the “100 Shuls Project” writes: The words of the Haggadah, “And you shall tell your children,” along with the Seder’s focus on children, can pierce like a dagger through the hearts of those who struggle with infertility. The Seder serves as a direct and painful reminder of what these individuals desperately desire—a family. Those who experience infertility often feel like social outsiders, at least in some ways, especially in the family-and child-centered Jewish community. At best, they slip through the cracks; at worst, they endure many insensitive questions and comments from those who do not understand.
And so this mother of 4—3 sons and a daughter, all conceived through the miracle of assisted reproductive technologies—has launched the “100 Shuls Project” to create greater awareness. And Shaarei Shamayim—along with 99 other shuls across America—has dedicated this Shabbat to Jewish infertility.
Infertility is a topic rarely discussed. Most couples struggling to conceive generally know almost nothing about fertility and treatments until being thrust unprepared into the world of reproductive endocrinology. Once one is handed the ticket into this world of endless doctor’s visits, self-injections, and failed cycles, the cyclical sadness, disappointment, and shame can drive individuals underground. Struggling to have a child can create a constant feeling of loss and helplessness.
Infertile Jews have added stress because so much of Jewish life and holidays revolve around children thus creating a source of tremendous pain—a reminder of what they don’t have, yet so desperately want. Taking the 1st steps toward treatment can be anxiety provoking because one is admitting that there may be something wrong.
According to the National Survey of Family Growth, 1 in 8 couples in America is diagnosed with infertility. It’s important to keep in mind that even the most aggressive treatment—in-vitro fertilization—is very expensive ($15,000 to $35,000 a pop with insurance picking up only a fraction, if anything) and only leads to live birth less than ½ the time. For most couples diagnosed with infertility, the road to parenthood is paved with tears, anguish, loss, isolation, and even depression. A new organization, Yesh Tikva (There is Hope, http://yeshtikva.org), was created to provide psychosocial resources and tools to Jewish couples struggling with infertility and to raise awareness.
To help personalize this topic, let me read to you an anonymous article submitted to Yesh Tikva reflecting on the experience of celebrating Pesach without children:
I have a close friend who once told me that she and her husband were having Seder alone. At the time, I thought that sounded like the most depressing scenario ever, and I worked hard to convince her to spend a holiday meal with my husband and me…I could not even fathom what a Seder of 2 would even look like. I hate to admit it, but I was a little bit judgmental of them for being sooo antisocial.
Fast forward to 5 years later: When others heard that my husband and I were having our Seder alone last year, they quickly invited us to theirs, assuming it was because we had nowhere to go. B”H we had invites. Pesach is a holiday where people should be with their family. According to the Haggadah, the whole point of the holiday is to tell our children all about when we were freed from slavery in Egypt. Seders across the world are usually held in a room full of happy people, with children running around. But not in our home…
When you’re enduring the test of infertility, most holidays are difficult. For many, myself included, Pesach is the worst. Over the past 3 years, Pesach transformed from being my most favorite holiday (really!) to being the most dreaded, most emotionally challenging time of year. This is the time when we’re supposed to be passing our traditions to the next generation…
Pesach has always been a “north star” on the infertility compass for me. This year, we’re enslaved by depression and loneliness; next year, we should be in Jerusalem, making Seder for a table filled with our own children. 2 years ago, the week before Pesach, our reproductive endocrinologist told us that in order to work around the handful of diagnosed medical obstacles, we needed to prepare ourselves for a future of many in-vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles, a process filled with medications and operations; by Shavuos, we were well into our 1st IVF cycle. For 2 years straight, when we got pregnant from IVF, we were due during or shortly after Pesach, until those ended in miscarriage. Our 8th IVF cycle just ended in yet another early miscarriage, only a week ago. I would have been devastated by this news regardless, but now I have to worry about how I will face yet another Pesach of just the 2 of us…
So last year, we took back Pesach. Instead of another dreaded year of plastering on smiles and pretending to joyously celebrate the holiday, we decided to stay home, where we could openly cry to Hashem. I sobbed through my husband’s drasha on the 4 sons and, without anyone else there, I felt so free to do so. We read stories of tzadikim, miracles, and of future generations. We used the Seder night as an opportunity to connect with each other and with Hashem, and to learn and pray, rather than just as a painful reminder of what’s lacking in our lives…
As for those of you who are blessed to have a Seder table with children…when your children make a mess or have trouble staying at the table, remember that despite the challenges, they are a continuous blessing that one should not take for granted. Say an extra “thank-you” to Hashem for your own blessings, try to be sensitive toward our feelings, and if you can, please daven that we’ll soon be joining you at mommy-and-me, on the playground, and amongst the sea of strollers outside of shul. May we all experience open miracles and liberation from that which holds us captive!
In the Biblical story of Hannah (Samuel 1), Hannah was unable to conceive; she prayed, cried and poured out her heart to Gd till He eventually granted her a son. This story—surprisingly enough—can be a source of pain to those having trouble conceiving, because it ends with a miracle pregnancy from Gd, which leaves some wondering where their own miracle is. Another aspect of the story is how Hannah was so alone in her pain. Another woman taunted her for remaining childless. Her husband didn’t understand. A priest, after seeing her weeping didn’t realize she was praying and accused her of being drunk. How different Hannah’s ordeal would have been if there had been someone to support her, especially an organization like Yesh Tikva.
This Shabbat we read about the sacrifices brought in the Mishkan and Temple of old. The Torah (Lev. 1:2) tells us that a sacrifice had to be mikem (from you)—something you give up to draw closer to Gd. There is no sacrifice women suffering from infertility would not make of themselves to have a child. It’s impossible for any of us blessed with children to understand the agony and disappointment each month brings. All we can do is to be there for them. And that’s what we and 99 other shuls across America are doing this Shabbat. Amen!