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Rosh HaShana 5784

09/17/2023 10:04:11 AM


Groovy Teshuvy, y’all. Here we are at the start of a new year, a time of possibility. Here we are at the Jewish high holy days, a time of introspection. This is the season of teshuvah (or teshuvy), a chance to repent and to return to our best selves. While we are certainly a people who love an excuse to feast, our celebrations are never about the fun, food, or family exclusively. We are also a people who demand self-improvement, commitment to our values, and dedication to God and the Jewish people. Now is a time for us to dig within ourselves and plan carefully for the possibilities of the new year. To cast away the mistakes and things that held us back in 5783 and resolve for new plans in 5784. One possible goal for some couples in the new year is to expand their families. To assess their lives thus far and figure out what will need to go in order to make space for new life. However, this is not always a simple new year’s resolution, but rather a multi-year struggle involving medical offices and an annoying amount of bureaucracy. 

As we read in some depth in last night’s haggadah, many of the couples in our Torah struggle with their family planning. In the Reform movement, where we often only celebrate one day of Rosh HaShana, we read the story of the Binding of Isaac as our main Torah portion. Gates of Repentance offers the Genesis story as an alternative, or to be read in the few congregations that do a second day Rosh HaShana service. The story of creation makes a lot of sense for the day we celebrate “The Birthday of the World,” but it is a relatively new tradition. In most synagogues around the world, and throughout most of post-Temple Jewish history, the story of Isaac’s birth is the Torah Reading for the first day of Rosh HaShana and the Akedah follows as the second day reading. We hear about Sarah's resignation to not having a child. So certain was she that it would not be possible for her and Abraham that she laughs at the very idea. When she is able to conceive, she is overjoyed. There is a midrash that Satan comes to tell Sarah about the binding of Isaac on Mount Moriah. In some versions, she dies immediately in her grief before he can finish explaining that God did intercede and Isaac lives. In some versions, Satan is purposely misleading in his description of the event, not lying outright but certainly leading Sarah to believe that Isaac was dead, and then she dies of grief after he has finished speaking. In either case, the level of heartbreak must be unbearable. This child that she so dearly wanted and waited for, taken away and subjected to abuse by her husband, the child's father. The Torah doesn't tell us if Sarah prayed to get pregnant or how hard the couple tried. They didn't have IVF back then, but we read in the birth stories of Jacob's sons that mandrakes may have been used as a fertility medicine or magic of some kind. It is possible Sarah hadn't been that heartbroken at the idea of not being able to have a child. Eventually, they tried surrogacy, in a way, with Hagar, but Sarah did not find that satisfactory. The planned surrogate remained as Ishmael’s true mother. Once Sarah was able to bear a child of her own, it is clear in the text and elaborated in the Midrash that she and Isaac had a very close mother-son relationship. 

On the other hand, our haftarah today does show a woman in great distress over her barren womb. Hannah's husband has several children with another wife, seemingly by a biologically normal age (unlike Abraham who is 90 years old when first son is born, and one hundred by the time Isaac comes along), but having a houseful of children and a husband who explicitly favors her over her fertile sister-wife is not satisfactory either. She wants to feel the joy of carrying a child for herself. She even promises to give the child over to Temple service once he's born. Unlike Sarah, the deep relationship with her adult child does not seem as important to Hannah as the early years of baby smells and snuggles and the feminine affirmation of giving birth. 

As someone who seeks to be an intersectional feminist, I never liked the concept of "the feminine affirmation of giving birth." There are lots of women who do not or cannot give birth or get pregnant, for a whole host of reasons. They are of course no less feminine, any less of a woman for that. If they do have children through adoption or surrogacy, they are of course no less of a mother for that. If they choose to remain single and childless or partnered and childless for life, they are still no less feminine for that. Womanhood comes in many forms, just as families can be structured in myriad ways. But knowing that intellectually did not stop my own emotional response when I had to consider that I may never get to have children. There have been moments when I felt like Hannah, driven near-mad by the longing, by the emptiness of not being pregnant. 

Fortunately for me, unlike our matriarchs, modern medical science leaves some room for intervention on this front. It is still not yet certain and I ossilate often between feelings of hope that I may yet have a baby, feelings of nihilistic acceptance that I will not get to experience motherhood, and still those feelings of sadness and longing. This is considered taboo to talk about, for most women in most contexts, and probably some of you will say all the more so for the rabbi in a sermon. But it is not considered taboo to ask couples, or women in particular, whether they want kids, why don’t they have kids yet, don’t they know they’re on a limited timeline, and so on. So if it is acceptable to ask, it must be acceptable to answer honestly. 

 The TaNaKh is notoriously terse, especially in its women’s perspectives, but Sarah’s bitterness and Hannah’s grief practicially jump from the page. Yet to outside observers, even those you might expect to be more attuned, Sarah is looked at as a disbeliever for laughing at the idea she might still have a child and Hannah is scolded as drunkard. Today, many women choose not to have kids for their own reasons that they are entitled to and do not need to justify to anyone else. Many women cannot have children and that’s ok for them, but they still might not like being asked about it. Many other women still cannot have children and it is deeply painful. You never know who is struggling to get pregnant, who has suffered losses of pregnancies, who is still trying, who is giving up, who is fighting with the adoption and foster care system to still find their child. 

“Do you want kids” is deemed casual small talk but “Yes I desperately want kids and it may not actually be my choice whether or not I get to have them” is considered oversharing. The same sentiment is true for many people on other issues as well. Everyone you know is struggling with something you know nothing about. I feel similarly about questions like, “How are you” as a casual greeting but anyone struggling with mental health disorders knows that really any answer other than “fine” will cause people to back away from conversation with you. The same way “So what do you do” is a very reasonable get-to-know-you question but someone struggling with unemployment knows answering truthfully will likely invite looks of pity or disapproval. I don’t think any question should be out of bounds, but I think we need to be ready for a true answer to any question we ask. As the asker, it is incumbent upon us to think about what we are actually asking and consider whether it’s the question we truly want to be asking, or if there’s another thing underneath our words. 

I attended a workshop with other rabbis writing High Holy Day sermons about “family struggles,” and the rabbi leading the breakout group on family planning difficulties said something along the lines of, “The point of Hannah’s story is not that she prays and then she gets to have a kid. The point is that this is a person in pain, and the priest accuses her of being drunk.” A few times throughout the instructor’s introductory presentation and the ensuing conversation, this idea about Hannah being a paradigm for personal struggle and praying for comfort kept coming up, as did the idea that Judaism is inherently a pro-natalist tradition. Reform Judaism’s stance on abortion and how “pro-natalism” colloquially means “anti-choice” in political spheres aside, it is true that Judaism puts a lot of emphasis on having children. It’s why rabbis are encouraged to marry and have children, unlike some other religious traditions, and it’s part of why we have never had an ascetic strain of Judaism. So it is understandable that there can be expectations and assumptions about every couple having children, and that often the seemingly personal questions come from a place of caring and concern for the childless. Both of these truths together: that the questions come from a place of concern and Jewish values, and that Hannah’s grief is our paradigm for true spiritual openness, brings me to repeat again: What is the question we really want to be asking, and how are we missing the mark by trying to couch the question in small talk? How can we ask more honestly and earnestly? 

And if we are able to check ourselves and ask honestly, ready for an honest answer, I do hope more people will feel comfortable answering honestly. I think a lot of people, like myself, do want to feel able to talk about hard things without scaring people, and are looking for others with stories of hope or acceptance on similar issues. But they hold back because they are worried about other people judging them for sharing such personal information. If more of us were bold about it, it wouldn’t be considered oversharing anymore. It could be as normal as the questions that prompt such answers in the first place. 

Of course, plenty of people also don’t want to talk about these struggles with anyone outside of their close friends and family, and that is obviously understandable as well. There should be no pressure to talk about such things, and if someone dodges a personal question, even if they don’t explicitly say, “I don’t want to answer that,” their surface level answer should be accepted. Again, when some answers, “Fine,” to the question of “How are you?” we don’t prod. But I know that some people do continue pushing for more information or offer unsolicited advice if the answer to “Why don’t you have kids?” is “Oh, I don’t know, it just hasn’t happened yet,” or when the answer to “What do you do for a living?” is “I’m between things.” I just think we should be accepting of whatever answer someone is willing to offer, and always engage in conversations with a listening ear and an open heart. Doing otherwise puts us in the position of repeating Eli the priest’s sin with Hannah. He was still a righteous man, and we can have all the best intentions in the world, and yet we are all still human, and if he can trip up that rudely, surely none of us are exempt. 

I am praying that this new year is a year of growth and change for my household. I cannot yet cast away my fear and uncertainty, but I am casting away any shame around the issue. I am hoping for teshuvah, a return, to a more honest version of myself, and in opening up about myself, I hope I can be a better rabbi, friend, confidant, and family member for those around me as well. May we all find this new year pregnant with hope and possibility, barren of heartache and heartlessness, and may we connect more deeply with one another each day. Amen and Shana Tova.

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784