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Childlessness
by Simon Jacobson

Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

What I read [last week’s article, Moment of Truth] was very moving and beautiful. My only question is the last line about the children. What if one does not have children? It seems sometimes there is so much emphasis on that that if one doesn't have children they are left out and not considered. Please clarify. Thank you.

A very important question indeed.

The gift of children is perhaps the greatest gift of all. The Psalmist writes: “Children are a Divine inheritance; the fruit of the womb His reward.” The Bible considers it to be the ultimate blessing: G-d created the human being, male and female, and blessed them: Be fruitful and multiply.

Virtually every tradition and culture places the highest premium on having children – building a family and home. The ostensible reason is obvious: Children are our future. Life ends if we do not propagate. Even according to the heartless evolutionary view of nature perpetuation of the species is the cardinal rule of existence.

Torah tradition in particular is built around children: Education, the Passover Seder, births, weddings and celebrations – all orbit around the family nucleus. Attempts throughout history to replace the nuclear family (like the kibbutz movement in the last century) have all failed.

This of course only amplifies the question for singles or couples that were not blessed with children – are they left out? Why would they be deprived of such a fundamental blessing?

[We also can’t ignore those that have made an active choice not to have children for whatever reason – but that deserves a separate discussion]. 

Before addressing this huge and life transforming issue, allow me to state a big disclaimer: I am honored to be the father of two wonderful children (boy and girl), who bring me only profound joy. I therefore feel unable – absolutely unable – to put myself in the shoes of anyone who has not (yet) been blessed with children. Frankly, I would consider it quite presumptuous for me (or any parent for that matter) to pontificate to a parentless individual how to cope with the challenge of childlessness.

Yet, through my life travels I have also been honored to meet many women and even men who suffer deep anguish over not having been blessed with children. And they have turned to me (and I am sure to others) for some solace, explanation or suggestion – anything to help relieve their pain and answer their questions to G-d, to life, to themselves.

At times I have been questioned for extolling the gift of children to an audience that included single women and men, or married couples, who did not have children. Truth be told, it would be equally unfair to repress discussing the beauty of children because some people may be offended. We must always be very sensitive around an issue that touches deep emotional chords; but this should not cause us to distort or avoid appreciating our blessings.

Yet, childlessness is a critical topic that profoundly affects many of us. And as such it must be addressed. As a parent myself with no experience of childlessness my only ability and right to speak about it is based not on my own thoughts and experiences, but those that I have been blessed to study and learn from my teachers and from the Torah, and above all – from my primary mentor, the Rebbe, who himself was (biologically) childless.

***

First and foremost, our hearts must go out to anyone who has attempted to have a child and been unable to conceive, or has reached an age when they no longer can naturally have children. This is equally true, both for women and men, who have been unable (for whatever reason) to find their soul-mate, marry and build a family (though one can argue that childlessness causes women more suffering than men). As it is with any emotional distress, trying to minimize it or explain it away rationally is simply arrogant if not outright stupid and insensitive.

I have consoled far too many women in their 40’s and on for their personal sorrow and regrets over not having tried to have children earlier in their lives (which, of course, always makes it very sad to see how many people who are naturally able to have children choose not to).

Beyond compassion and sensitivity, the big question is: Why would G-d deprive any person from the great blessing and mitzvah of having children?

The ultimate answer, like the answer to all questions about the suffering innocent, is that Judaism doesn’t ask “why?” but “what?” – “what can we do about it?”

We do not know the mysterious ways of the Divine. Why, for instance, some people are blessed to be born into healthy homes and nurturing parents, and others into dysfunctional and abusive homes? Why some children are born handicapped (G-d forbid)? Why are some of us given an easier life than others? Why each of us has our own particular strengths and challenges? – All these questions, and many, many more, may never be answered.

However, not understanding “why” does not make us weaker. Because we have the power and control to answer a bigger question: “What will we do about it?” “Why?” is actually the question of a victim; “what we can do?” is the question of the proactive.

A cardinal rule of existence – and perhaps the single most empowering statement – is that G-d would not give us a challenge we cannot handle. With every obstacle, every deprivation, every loss that we may experience – we are also given a special “package” of strength not only to counteract the negative impact, but to achieve greater heights. For every thing we are missing, we gain something in return.

Obviously, we have to try everything humanly possible to achieve our goals, whether it’s to find a spouse, have a child or to overcome any impediment. But after we have done everything in our power (and objective friends testify to that fact), then we are assured that we other Why may never know why we had to take another course, but we must always know that we have the power to actualize our greatest potential if not via a regular course than through an irregular one. Regular may be easier and less challenging, but it also can be ordinary; irregular can lead us into the extraordinary.

The same applies to childlessness. What is really lies at the heart of the blessing of children? The ability to create life and to influence the world forever. Through your children you leave a part of yourself in this world; they continue your life’s contributions, as you continued your parents’ legacy. In one word children reflect eternity. The only way we can achieve immortality is through our children perpetuating our lives; and when our values are eternal ones (instead of temporary ones), than they can live on forever through our following generations.

Chassidic thought puts it this way: Birthing a child is the embodiment – the only one – of the Infinite Divine power to create (koach ha’ein-sof). Every thing we produce and accomplish in this world is reshaping one form into another; all man-made products are building one something from another something (yesh m’yesh). Conceiving and giving birth to a child is true creation: a new life out of nowhere – something from nothing.

When all goes well and you find your appropriate spouse and G-d (the third partner) blesses you with a child (or children), you have actualized the Divine creative process of birth. Now, your Divine responsibility as parents is to nurture, educate and imbue your child with eternal values; to teach your child to discover his/her mission in illuminating our universe.

The same G-d that blesses us with children – no one would suggest that a child is a man-made creation – also gave some of us the challenge of childlessness, and the strength to deal with it.

The original Matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, as well as Chana and many other great women in history, were naturally barren, and it was only though their heartfelt prayers that G-d opened their wombs. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 45:4) offers various explanations, one being that G-d “desires” the prayers of the righteous, and therefore wanted that they cry out, and bring down the blessing through their prayers. Indeed, the Rosh Hashana is a day, a day of prayer, when the barren women are remembered by G-d (Rosh Hashana 11a), which is why the Torah reading of that day begins: “And God remembered Sara...”

Now, when birth doesn’t happen (for whatever reason – natural or human error), we must say, according to the abovementioned rule, that this person has the power to achieve immortality and find fulfillment in other ways.

[Indeed, a fascinating Zohar (the classic text of Jewish Mysticism) tells us that couples who join in sacred union, even if they are beyond child-bearing age, conceive a soul even when the soul does not descend into a body! If they are blessed then the soul will connect to a body, but even if not a new soul was conceived].

What can possibly replace actual children?!

Tells us the Talmud (Sanhedrin 19b) that “one who teaches another Torah is considered as if s/he gave birth to that individual.” This is derived from the verse (Numbers 3:1) that describes the biological children of Aaron as “children of Aaron and Moses,” because Moses was their teacher.

This is not some cute patronization. It means quite literally that when you teach, educate and inspire someone with Divine truths you actually “give birth” to them. Think about a mentor or teacher that may have said just the right word to you at the right moment in your life – was it not like giving you a new life? Unfortunately, such epiphany-like experiences are uncommon. But sometime a teacher can be more of a parent to us than our biological parents (especially in this dysfunctional age).

In fact there were Chassidim who would celebrate their birthdays not on the day of their biological birth, but on the day that they met their Rebbe for the first time!

So though the void of childlessness may never be filled, nor the pain relieved – but it gives us the opportunity to (re)think (about) the purpose of our lives. The purpose being – to change the world; and we have that power by touching others forever.

Children are our fruit; fruit that in turn will bear new fruit. A true mentor/educator is a gardener that lays seeds, nurtures the ground, waters the plants, and changes the future.

Having natural children is a great blessing – a blessing everyone should merit. But if that is not (yet) one’s destiny, never, never should we feel that things are lost. A person in that situation must take a more difficult route of “giving birth” in new ways through inspiring and illuminating the soul of others. This is definitely a harder job – one that doesn’t come on a platter as do natural born children – but is also doesn’t lend itself to the complacency that biological parents can have to their children, and actually has the ability to shape and influence people in more profound ways than actual parents do.

[On a mystical level – I knew that I couldn’t avoid a Samach-Vav connection – we can perhaps say that the childless individual reflects the state of “There is one who is alone with no second, and he has neither son nor brother” (Ecclesiastes 4:8). “One who is alone” is the level of the Divine Infinite Light that does not manifest in relationships (“He has neither son nor brother”). The concept of relationships is only in the way the Divine manifests in the finite – in the structure of the ten sefirot (Ohr HaTorah on Kohelet, p. 1115). However, the ultimate purpose is to unite the infinite and the finite, the “one who is alone” with “son” and “brother.” Natural parents do this through having children; the rest of us do it through “birthing” students].

Practically speaking, let’s go back to where we began: After all the discussions and elaborations, there are really no words that can truly console someone who is suffering from the grief of childlessness. “Why?” may not be a question we should ask, but it is easier said than done.

So if you have a relative or friend in this situation, be there for them. Be extra sensitive – not treat them as “nebech” (pathetically needy) case, but as a human being that deserve dignity like every person does.

Above all (whether it be you or your friend), remember that for every challenge we were given additional powers. When faced with the challenge around children – we must work overtime to inspire each other to find ways to express our unique strengths to educate and inspire others.

And always remember: Miracles do happen. We cannot rely or expect them to happen. But they do happen.

I want to conclude with a blessing (birchat hedyot): May all those who are in need of children be blessed with healthy offspring. May those who are in need of finding their soulmate – be blessed to met the right person and to recognize that this is the right person. May those who were blessed with children fully appreciate their gift, and not only serve as biological parents but also as spiritual ones.

And most of all – may those that are unable to have children at this point, be comforted and find the strength to recognize their unique skills to birth and change for the better the lives of people they come in contact with.

May we all inspire, illuminate and educate many students – and give birth to many “children,” and shape the future forever.

 

 


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