Too often, struggles with fertility are relegated to the unseen corners of our communal conversation. But these challenges face so many of us, who, like our ancestors, seek guidance and support in finding ways to "be fruitful and multiply." Our tradition is a treasure trove of stories and resources that might inspire our community to enhance its sympathy and compassion for families who struggle with fertility.
To Be Fruitful and Multiply: Jewish Responses to Challenges with Fertility
The sacred drama of our mythic ancestors takes a critical turn in this week’s Torah portion.
As Jacob flees his home, God reaffirms the covenant established with his grandfather, Abraham. Rachel and Leah emerge as complex and powerful figures, destined to become the mothers of the children of Israel. And we see the branches grow on our intertwined family tree. Our story is full of parallels and paradoxes, featuring pairs of characters who highlight an issue both ancient and contemporary: painful struggles with fertility.
Jacob is heir to a prodigious promise. God first appeared to Abraham swearing, “I will make of you a great nation, …. and through you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). Abraham struggled to make sense of this promise since when it was given, his wife was long beyond child-bearing age. Through trial and strife, Abraham and Sarah eventually do bring one son into the world, and he in turn would have two children of his own – one accepted and one rejected.
So at the opening of this week’s parashah, Abraham’s long-awaited destiny has still not come true. His heirs are few, hardly the great nation that was promised.
And then Jacob has a dream. He sees a ladder with angels going up and coming down, and God stands at its top. God tells Jacob, “Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, … and through you and your descendants, all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 28:13-14). Perhaps at last, the promise will be fulfilled.
Jacob, himself a twin, comes to marry Leah and Rachel, who may also be twins. And Leah begins to bear children right away. Rachel languishes, unable to get pregnant, and Leah as well loses her fertility after a few years. Both wives supply their handmaids to serve as surrogate parents, and they vie both for their husband’s attention as well as for the ability to raise their own children. Throughout the parashah, the issues of fertility and infertility take center stage, depicting with biblical poignancy the toll such struggles demand.
Of course, this isn’t the start of the Torah’s focus on the importance of progeny. The drive to bear children begins not with Jacob and Rachel or Sarah and Abraham but rather with Adam and Eve, who are instructed to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). In this commandment, God’s intention is clear: just as God has brought life into the world, so should human beings.
But time and again, our sacred texts reveal that not everyone can easily fulfill this expectation. We see the anger of Sarah, the agony of Rebecca, and the contentious sorrow of both Leah and Rachel as they struggle to have children under difficult circumstances. Other women in the Hebrew Bible also face infertility, including Hannah, the inventor of Jewish private prayer, and Michal, the royal wife of King David. Even Moses himself, though he sires two sons, actually doesn’t raise them as his own, and he leaves no legacy or heirs to his family dynasty. Rare is the family in Tanach that comfortably bears and raises children, offering company to families today who face similar challenges.
Sadly, our communal gaze focuses too often only on the tribulations of our ancestors. We fail to honor our own experiences and those of our loved ones. We readily talk about Rachel or Sarah as “barren” without pausing to consider how such a label may ring in the ears of would-be parents. That’s why there’s a relatively new local organization called the Priya Fund, started by our friends and colleagues, Annie Glickman and Rabbi David Glickman. That’s P-R-I-Y-A. Located both here and in Dallas, Texas, Priya provides both “financial and emotional support to Jewish families struggling with infertility.” Priya joins the growing effort to bring fertility challenges out of the darkness by providing a forum for the Jewish community to discuss them.
To model their efforts, I can share a piece of my own family’s story, which has been touched by fertility challenges. For nearly a year, Jessica and I tried to get pregnant, our disappointment and desperation growing month after month. As we talked with friends about our own experiences, we encountered some whose stories were similar and others whose were far harder. We learned of friends and family members who endured medical interventions, miscarriages, and stillbirths, each story painfully unique yet overlapping in fundamental emotions and desires. Our own short experience in this world of disappointment provided entrée to a segment of the Jewish community that too often goes unnoticed and unsupported.
Challenges with fertility are so common yet so often treated as taboo, especially in the Jewish community. Hopefully, this is starting to change. The voices of our tradition speak to us across the generations, reminding us of the importance of opening up to one another, of navigating these choppy waters together.
Above all else, our tradition encourages us not to let this struggle be a solitary one. According to rabbinic tradition, Rebecca turns to her husband for consolation, and Leah and Rachel lean upon one another for support. Many of our ancestors sought strength in God, whom they saw as the source not of their pain but of their comfort. Our families, our community, and our Creator can all provide solace to the lonely, offering not cures but compassion. When we share our stories—and when we make space for others to share their stories with us—we can make it safe to vent and cry and curse; to mourn and pray and hope. If there’s one overriding message from our tradition about facing challenges with fertility, it is this: no one has to do it alone. We learn from the experience of our ancestors the importance of creating in our own day and age a sensitive and compassionate community.
Sometimes, as we know, struggles with fertility result in the birth of a child. Though the remnants of doubt and frustration and emotional and financial expense never fully vanish, they are replaced with the joys (and challenges) of parenthood. Hope wins out, though not in the way anticipated at first.
This is what happens with Jacob and, to some extent, his wives. Ultimately, Jacob gives rise to twelve sons and at least one daughter, and when his family later takes refuge in Egypt, they have grown to a family seventy strong. These are the first promising steps of the fulfillment of God’s promise: “Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth.”
But sometimes, individuals or couples who struggle with fertility do not give birth to a child as they had originally hoped to do. In such cases, our tradition seeks to console us in our disappointment while also offering encouragement that one can still “be fruitful and multiply.” This encouragement can be found in the promise given originally to Abraham: “Look towards the heavens and count the stars if you can. …. So many shall be your descendants!” (Gen. 15:5). Jacob’s descendants were prophesied to be as abundant as the dust of the earth; for Abraham, the descendants would be as numerous as the stars. And even though Sarah and Abraham had only one child, nevertheless our tradition insists that their prophecy did come true. Only their legacy was celestial rather than biological. Like Sarah and Abraham, we today can “be fruitful and multiply” even if we can’t have children, and Jewish tradition has long sanctified multiple means of raising the next generation.
There are, in particular, two ways that Judaism offers to fulfill the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” aside from bearing biological children. The first is adoption, either informal or legal. The rabbis teach of one who adopts a child, raising it as her own, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִילּוּ יְלָדוֹ, “Scripture credits her as if it were her own child.” As the midrash says, הַמְגַדֵּל אָב וְלֹא הַמּוֹלִיד, “A parent is one who raises [a child], not one who gives birth.” In Tanach, several characters adopt the children of other family members and are considered by our tradition to be their full parents together with their biological parents. Moses, for instance, is considered the father of Aaron’s children alongside Aaron himself. Michal, the queen of David who could not bear children, is regarded as the mother of her sister’s children, whom tradition says she raised. And Naomi, beyond her childbearing years with no living children, adopts the son of her daughter-in-law, Ruth, whereupon her neighbors say of Ruth’s child, “A son is born to Naomi!” (Ruth 4:17). It is clear from these precedents that one who helps raise the children of one’s family is considered as a full parent. The same principles apply when adopting children from outside one’s family, a practice that has long been accepted and encouraged in the Jewish community.
The second path Judaism paves to fulfilling the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” is through teaching or educating the next generation. The paradigmatic examples of this approach are Sarah and Abraham. Midrash recounts that they taught Torah to multitudes, and these disciples counted as their offspring while they were unable to bear children biologically. The rabbis of the Talmud as well, while insistent on the centrality of the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” on several occasions regarded their students as their children. Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai, for instance, a famous pair of rabbis known for their spirited and spiritual disputes, both left legacies to their disciples rather than to biological children. Through both teaching children and adopting them, we help make the legacy of Judaism fruitful, that generation after generation, its wisdom and those who follow it may multiply.
Those who struggle with fertility need not do so alone. We stand in the company of our ancestors, who—sometimes gracefully and sometimes painfully—weathered difficulties they never foresaw, turning to their families and to God for support. May we learn from them and from one another, breaking down the unspoken code of silence to make room for the sharing of personal stories, stories of longing and heartbreak, of celebration and surprise.
In so doing, may we foster a more sympathetic and safe community for ourselves and our loved ones to share and discuss our stories and to find compassionate support in one another.
And finally, may we remind ourselves and one another that there are many ways we can “be fruitful and multiply,” acting in God’s image to bring into the world both light and life.
 Many of the sources in this sermon are drawn from my article, co-authored with Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler, “Go and Learn from Abraham and Sarah: Jewish Responses to Facing Infertility,” which can be found in The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, ed. Lisa Grushcow, CCAR Press, 2014. It was also reprinted in Honoring Tradition, Embracing Modernity: A Reader for the Union for Reform Judaism's Introduction to Judaism Course, ed. Beth Lieberman and Hara Person, CCAR Press, 2017.
 Seder Olam Rabbah (2nd/3rd century CE), based on math related to Leah and Rachel’s imagined ages at their deaths, suggests that they were twins (section 2). As well, R. Baruch HaLevi Epstein (1860-1941) in his Torah Temimah suggests that the extraneous word “two” in וּלְלָבָן שְׁתֵּי בָנוֹת, “Laban had two daughters” (Gen. 29:16) “teaches that they were equivalent” (מורה שהן שוות).
 The commandment פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ is reiterated to Noah and his children in Gen. 9:1 and 9:7.
 Mishnah Yevamot 6:6 teaches, “The man is commanded concerning פִּרְיָה וְרִבְיָה (being fruitful and multiplying) but not the woman.” The gemara of Yevamot 65b-66a records debate among several rabbis as to whether this reading is accurate or whether פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ also applies to women. Maimonides, in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Ishut 15:2, confirms that only men and not women are obligated concerning “being fruitful and multiplying.” A responsum of the Central Conference of American Rabbis Responsa Committee rejects this distinction between men and women (“Jewish Marriage Without Children,” 1979).
 Cf. BT Yevamot 64a.
 Cf. BT Megillah 13b and BT Berachot 60a.
 Cf. Genesis Rabbah 45:4 and Yalkut Shimoni on I Samuel 1:20, 247:78.
 The birth of one daughter, Dina, is recounted in Gen. 30:21. However, in Gen. 37:34, mention is made of Jacob’s “sons and daughters.”
 BT Sanhedrin 19b.
 Numbers Rabbah 46:5.
 See context of above quotation in Sanhedrin 19b.
 II Sam. 21:8 reports that Michal bears five children with Adriel the Meholathite. Since this same Adriel is identified as the husband of Michal’s sister, Meirav (I Sam. 18:19.), R. Joshua ben Korha concludes that Meirav is the biological mother of these children but that Michal raised them. (He holds that it is appropriate for Michal to raise Meirav’s children, for the marriage between Meirav and Adriel was a “marriage in error” (קידושי טעות) (as above, BT Sanhedrin 19b).
 Cf. above, BT Yevamot 62a-62b, in which most rabbis conclude that one’s children must survive in order to fulfill the obligation to “be fruitful and multiply.”
 See the CCAR responsum “Jewishness of an Adopted Child” (1989), available: https://web.archive.org/web/20170824183527/http://ccarnet.org/responsa/narr-185-187/.
 BT Sanhedrin 99b.
 Cf. BT Yevamot 62a-62b (Akiva) and BT Yevamot 63b (ben Azzai).
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