And Sarah Laughed: Facing Infertility on Rosh Hashanah
With the new year come new opportunities for change and growth, and new opportunities for our prayers to be answered.
“Do twins run in your family?”
When I was first asked this seemingly innocuous question, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Do I start explaining to the questioner my personal story of infertility, struggle and eventual redemption? Do I simply answer, “No”? For many years I shied away from openly sharing my experience due to my private nature and fear of vulnerability. But I eventually came to realize that I had an opportunity to transform my own challenge into something positive, diminish the stigma surrounding the subject of infertility, as well as educate others by building awareness about the prevalence of infertility in the Jewish community and the world at large.
In the traditional Jewish world, there’s a strong cultural emphasis on family, the holidays, and the Torah commandment to be fruitful and multiply. Rabbi Baruch Finkelstein and Michal Finkelstein, RN, CNM, explain in their book The Third Key that the infertile couple suffers in six areas:
Spiritually (feeling empty and not fulfilled)
Socially (experiencing alienation and isolation from peers with children)
Theologically (wondering, “Is God punishing me?”)
Psychologically (feeling jealousy and anger toward fertile friends, neighbors and siblings, as well as guilt for having these emotions)
Physically (undergoing invasive treatments, drugs and procedures)
Interpersonally (the marriage is affected greatly, and intimacy is often damaged)
(and I’ll add Financially)
Some couples experience secondary infertility, the difficulty of conceiving again, which can bring shocking disappointment.
During my fertility challenges I developed the idea to start Nafshi, a Jewish wellness organization. I wanted to help give people a sense of community and support and provide Jews with a platform for personal development and wellness through the lens of a meaningful Jewish experience. However, my energy and resources were so focused on my infertility that I was drained and unable to practically put my dreams into action.
Working with highly skilled infertility specialists, I pursued every approach, both physical and spiritual, to achieve my goal to conceive. I started to conduct my own research, which led me to a holistic approach to the body. I tried new diets as well as a slew of new vitamins. I went to an acupuncturist and started seeing a chiropractor.
In the spiritual realm, I began a regular recitation of psalms and received blessings from many holy rabbis. I began to focus intensely on a new approach to prayer and began practicing Hitbodedut, speaking to God out loud in my own words. Sara Yoheved Rigler, my teacher and mentor for many years, taught me that there is a connection between the Hebrew words chazan (prayer leader) and chazon (vision). Through the power of visualization, mindset and positive language, our prayers can move worlds, like an athlete who visualizes victory before each game. I began visualizing myself being pregnant and fulfilled, overflowing with light and positive energy. I approach prayer with the belief that once I put in my fair share of effort, God can give me whatever I request. If my desire isn’t granted, then I must accept that God feels it is best for me that way.
After years of personal efforts, as well as having reached the point where I was able to let go of control, I received a call from the doctor with good news: I was pregnant.
Our excitement over the positive news sparked my husband and I to want to help others who also longed to have children. We were finally ready to launch Nafshi, our Jewish wellness organization which began the summer of 2017.
We are approaching the Jewish new year. The Torah and Haftarah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah broach the subject of infertility. The Torah reading begins by describing how God remembered Sarah and she conceived and gave birth to a son. Previously, Sarah had been incapable of conceiving and desperately longed for a child. The Haftarah describes Chana, my Jewish namesake, who also struggled to conceive. The text reveals her anguished prayer for a child and her promise to dedicate her child to the service of God all his life. Our Sages teach that on Rosh Hashanah God answered the prayers of both Sarah and Chana, as well as our matriarch Rachel, and they each conceived and gave birth to a son (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 11a).
Why do we read about the infertility struggles of Sarah and Chana on Rosh Hashanah? The readings are meant to convey important messages to the entire Jewish people, not just women who have had struggles with conception. The Hebrew word for year is shanah, which also can be translated as “change,” or alternatively “sleep.” As we gather in the synagogue in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and on the holiday itself, we hear the blasts of the shofar. These powerful blasts are meant to awaken us from our slumber, i.e. our routine. We are reminded that with the new year come new opportunities for change and growth, new opportunities for our prayers to be answered, just as the heartfelt prayers of Sarah and Chana were actualized on this auspicious day. The gates to the heavens are wide open on Rosh Hashanah.
So how do I now answer someone who asks, “Do twins run in your family?” I smile, reflect on my personal growth and inner strength, and reply with a newfound sense of empowerment: “Thank God, they do now.”
Practical tips for family and friends of those facing infertility:
- Don’t ask people directly about their infertility because they may not want to share. Be available for them if they do. Listen and empathize. Feel their pain.
- Invite childless couples for holidays.
- Pray for others.
- Always give people the benefit of the doubt. We never know the full picture and what struggles lie beneath the surface.
- Parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors: don’t ask too many questions.