“Give Me Children, or I Shall Die”: Chassidic Approaches to Confronting the Grief of Infertility

Sasha Balofsky, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Essays 2019 / Parenting & Family

One of the greatest joys in life is to hold your child in your arms.  Yet what do we do when G-d withholds that joy from us?  The discovery that your or your spouse are unable to conceive carries the weight of a thousand boulders: the grief of childlessness, the financial and emotional stress of potential treatment, the battle against envy and isolation from those who are pregnant and/or have children of their own.  Is there a spiritual answer to the painful struggles of infertility? I believe that Chassidus says, “yes.”  While Chassidic teachings can never deign to tell us exactly why a person is going through infertility, it does provide us a framework from confronting and coping with it in healthy, life-affirming ways.

The Gift of Pain: Coming to Terms with G-d’s Love for Us

One of the most common reactions to the infertility experience is guilt.  Men and women wonder if they did something to deserve or bring on the current struggle they are experiencing.  Did they make poor health decisions, or worse, poor moral decisions to deserve this punishing experience? Is it possible that G-d doesn’t love them and doesn’t believe them deserving of having children of their own? While some degree of introspection is beneficial to improving oneself, the guilt behind infertility is often crippling, making one feel unloved and undeserving of love.  Such guilt does not help an individual move forward but only holds them in a perpetual state of self-hatred and grief.  It is thus most beneficial for them to learn what Tanya teaches us on the matter of pain and suffering.

The Alter Rebbe writes in chapter 26 of Likkutei Amarim that all suffering we experience in the world derives from G-d’s deep love for us.  Unlike human beings who can sometimes act with hatred and spite, G-d only wants what is best for us.  Like a loving parent giving their child foul-tasting medicine, G-d is acting in a manner that, on the surface, only appears to be spiteful or cruel.  The suffering of infertility could perhaps be compared to the cactus’s thorns; on the surface, the cactus pricks and pains, but if we truly understand the deeper nature of this plant we could break it open and find the life-giving waters within.  Within any kind of suffering, including infertility, G-d is giving us life-giving water; He is giving us something we need enclosed in something that appears harsh and unyielding.

In our ideal world, or perhaps ideal self, we would all embrace suffering like Reb Zusia, a chassid who so deeply ingrained the idea that “everything is for the good” upon his soul that he did not believe he had ever experienced suffering in his many years of poverty, hunger, and illness.  Yet we are not tzadikim; indeed, even our matriarch Rochel Imenu suffered from deep envy and depression when confronting her barrenness before her fertile sister Leah, crying to Jacob “Give me children or I shall die!”  The starting point for those suffering infertility is not immediate acceptance and joy: rather it is to simply remind themselves that G-d does love them very much, and their pain does not change that absolute truth.  G-d loves them and is with them through this journey.

What Do I Do with Myself? Fighting Powerlessness with Mitzvot

Accepting that G-d loves them in only the first step is coping; those suffering infertility are still left with the struggle against time.  Anyone who has ever been through infertility of any kind will tell you that it is a long waiting game: waiting for diagnostic tests results, for surgeries, for recoveries, for procedures like IUI or IVF, for the results from those procedures to come in, for monitoring appointments, for even G-d forbid the miscarriages and post-miscarriage months of recovery before one can try to conceive yet again.  If all medical options are exhausted, there may yet be more waiting if one choose to go through the long and legally arduous process of adopting a child.  Prayer and meditation can give an individual some degree of inner peace, but for many prayer alone is not enough to combat the perpetual anxiety and powerlessness in simply waiting for news or events to occur.

This where the Ari’s concept of tikkun olam comes to our salvation.

In very simplified terms, the Ari taught that at the beginning of creation G-d contracted Himself and created ten vessels of divine light in the world.  These vessels contained too much holiness or light and thus broke, their remnants scattered across the world.  With every mitzvah or good deed we do, we release the divine sparks of light within these broken vessels and gather them together.  Our eventually goal as Jews is to gather up all the divine sparks until tikkun olam, the repair of the world, can finally occur.  The Ari and thus later Alte Rebbe, who explains this concept of gathering divine sparks in more depth in the Tanya, present us with a solution to the powerlessness of infertility: using this experience to gather up divine sparks.  Rather than perpetual seeing ourselves as powerless victims of medical limbo, we are able to use each chapter in our infertility story to gather up divine sparks and provide meaning and purpose to the many cycles of waiting.

What does it mean to turn infertility struggles into tikkun olam? To address this question, we must first examine what it means to use suffering in general as a means to repair the world.  We are fortunate in that we can find ideal models of this concept in Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. 

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl writes of the different ways individuals coped with the cruelty and powerless felt in the concentration camps.  While many focused solely on their own survival, he writes of the few who went about the camp comforting others or who even gave away their last scrap of bread to another in need.  Frankl notes that these small number of martyrs impressed upon him the idea that one can always choose one’s attitude in experiencing suffering.  Indeed, he makes the argument that one should strive to be “worthy of one’s suffering” by using it to demonstrate one’s inner moral and spiritual dignity.  Ultimately Frankl demonstrates that we are more empowered and more spiritually strengthened when we commit to tikkun olam during a period of suffering.  Contrary to some secular wisdom which would suggest one must focus solely on one’s needs during mentally-trying times, being a giver during a time of extreme challenge actually imbues our life with meaning and thus makes our suffering more bearable.  While committing to tikkun olam will not erase the pain of childlessness, it will certainly release the sense of powerlessness an individual feels if he or she is able to make use of their suffering to benefit others and ultimately the world.

Chassidus even goes so far as to teach us that a person who is giving from a place of lack is doing more complete and more genuine Chesed than one that gives from a place of plenty.  In the chapter titled “The Many Sides of Chesed” in his book In the Beginning: Discourses on Chassidic Thought,  Rabbi Adin Even-Israel explains that to real chesed is about nullifying oneself and only seeing the needs of another individual.  There is no thought given to oneself and what oneself deserves, only the needy individual in question and what one can give.  This is a clarification of Chesed as discussed in Igerret Hakodesh, Chapter 2 of Tanya, that contrasts the arrogant and prideful Chesed of Ishmael with the Chesed of Avraham.  The Alter Rebbe writes that Ishmael’s chesed was corrupted because “the more kindness [manifested to him], the more he grows in pride, haughtiness, and self-satisfaction.” In essence the Alter Rebbe suggests that certain types of chesed comes from a person’s sense of self-worth and their own corresponding acts of charity are simply another way of demonstrating their greatness: their wealth, their power, their influence.  In contrast, true chesed like that of Avraham has nothing to do with demonstrating one’s greatness and makes no reference to one’s need at all; Avraham’s ability to greet and feed guests after circumcision is an excellent example of an individual who was putting others before himself and his needs.  We can see how a person who themselves is in pain, like Avraham was in pain after his circumcision, is in a stronger position to give true chesed than one who is without current struggle.  An individual who is in a state of perfect contentment and fulfillment has the stronger temptation and evil inclination to help others as a means of proving themselves superior to the individual or individuals in need.  One need only observe a patronizing tone, an openly pitiful look or comment, or the loose tongue of someone in a shared community to understand that, for some individuals, the discussion of the those in need is largely an opportunity to lift up their own self-worth.  For those suffering infertility, they do not have that problem; their longing for children signify that when they help others in similar or related situations it is an act of true chesed, the chesed of Avraham.

What Do I Have Left to Give? Discovering Your Influence and Expertise

Given the arduous and complex struggles of infertility, it is tempting for many men and women to say they do not believe they have anything to offer others.  I have no money because I am in crippling debt for IVF, they might say.  I have no time or energy because of the medical appointments, surgeries, or hormonal effects of medication.  Certainly given the labor-intensive nature of the infertility journey, one must maintain realistic expectations on what one can do in terms of chesed.  And yet the very uniqueness of the infertility struggle present an individual with numerous, highly meaningful and impactful opportunities to give. Below are some practical ideas:

  • Join an infertility group or organization and become a peer buddy or mentor for someone earlier in the infertility journey than you. If you are undergoing IVF, find someone who is preparing or considering it.  If you have been diagnosed already, find someone who is just beginning to cope with diagnosis or perhaps is awaiting diagnosis.  If you have decided to explore adoption or being a childless couple, talk to someone who is considering such a decision themselves.   Whether you decide to meet in person or simply message, call, or text the individual to monitor their progress and emotional health, you can assured that your outreach will make them feel less isolated and give them critical information on the process they might not otherwise have had.  They are *always* those who know less than you and could benefit from your experience or knowledge.  As the Rebbe said, “if you only know aleph, teach aleph.”
  • For truly close friends or family members who are trying to or planning to conceive, educate them about when and how to get fertility testing. Many individuals do not know how long it should take to conceive and are unfamiliar with infertility warning signs as well as vital testing.  Pass on your knowledge to others and ensure that their journey is as smooth and efficient as possible. If you yourself waited or postponed treatment due to a lack of knowledge, let others learn from your mistakes.
  • Write about your experiences if you feel comfortable. They are organizations or spaces where anonymous posts are accepted if that is your preferred method.  Women and men reading these stories will feel less alone and less stigmatized.  These articles remind them that many others are on the same journey, even if that journey is rarely publicized.
  • In support groups and organizations, share your knowledge of the financial process as well as the names of good doctors, specialists, etc. Affordable clinics or truly supportive specialists may not be as well-known as they should be, especially in communities where discussion of infertility is taboo.  If you can ensure another man or woman can afford to have a family or is treated with respect and kindness by a physician, you will have given a priceless gift to someone in need.
  • Consider filling a void in someone else’s life. You can do this in any number of ways: visiting those in a nursing home, befriending or checking in with an elderly person who lives alone, working with children who may come from dysfunctional family backgrounds or who are in foster care. Not all of these ideas will be suitable for every individual suffering infertility, but the theme is to find another person who feels lonely and perhaps lacks the feeling of a family, and give them a space to feel loved and cared for.  Because of your unique experiences with loneliness, you are in a wonderful position to help another alleviate those feelings.  Recall that family is about more than shared blood, and you can “make a family” with the people you treat with consistent love and compassion.

Organizations and Places to Find Support Groups: Yesh Tikvah, Resolve: The National Infertility Association, private or secret facebook groups for infertility (require a referral from a friend), infertility whatsapp groups (also require the referral or a friend or acquaintance).