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Now Saray, Avram's wife, bore him no children; and she had an Egyptian handmaid, whose name was Hagar. (BERESHIS 16:1)
During the days of the First World War there was a great famine in Jerusalem. People fell in the streets from hunger. Even Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the well-known tzaddik of Jerusalem, had no food in his house, and had no way to feed his children. He heard that one of the wealthy men of the city, someone who had helped Rabbi Aryeh in the past, was giving out free loans. Rabbi Aryeh's wife urged him to go to this wealthy person and try to get a loan. Even though this was against Rabbi Aryeh's nature, he realized that under such dire circumstances he had no other choice.
And so Rabbi Aryeh went to the man's house, but to his surprise his request for a loan was turned down. He asked for an explanation as to why he alone was being refused, as he knew that many others were being given loans. The answer he received was honest and explicit. "To others I must lend, since they know that I have money, and if I will not give them they will hate me or take revenge on me. But I know you are a tzaddik and would not harm a fly. And so I am sure that you will not cause me to suffer because of my refusal, and you will neither take revenge nor hate me."
This cruel explanation startled Rabbi Aryeh, but he nevertheless found it in his heart to forgive the man, despite the fact that he would not help Rabbi Aryeh when his children were hungry. Rabbi Aryeh returned home and cried in exasperation, "Lord of the Universe, because I do not take revenge and I do not harm people, is this a reason that I should die of hunger?"
His wife heard him and admonished him, saying, "Reb Aryeh, where is your confidence in G-d? Is it gone?" And she quoted the verse which says, "Don't trust in the rich, people who have no redemption." She said "You tried as you should have." Then she quoted another verse: "Throw your burden on the Lord and He will sustain you."
On that very same day, an envelope mysteriously arrived from abroad for Rabbi Aryeh with a large sum of money in it. (K'TZES HA-SHEMESH BI-GVURASO, p. 210 )
Even when it seems that his suffering is unfair, one should never give up hope and refrain from praying to G-d. He wants us to pray and have confidence in Him. This principle certainly applies to couples that are barren.
(The following is a story told by the prophet [Elijah].)
Once when I was traveling from place to place, I came across an old man who asked me the following question: "Rabbi, why does it happen that some Jewish families are unable to have children?"
I said to him, "My son, it is because G-d loves them with a complete love, and He is happy with them and purifies them with this suffering, and so that they will ask Him for mercy. Go and learn this from Avraham and Sarah, who were barren for seventy-five years before Isaac was born. They prayed so much for mercy until Isaac was born, which made them so happy. Go and learn from Isaac and Rebecca who were barren for twenty years. They prayed so much for mercy until Ya'akov was born which made them so happy. Go and learn this from Rachel, who was barren for fourteen years until her two children were born. She prayed so much for mercy until they both came. Go and learn from Chana who was barren for nineteen years and six months until Samuel was born; and she was made so happy with him. (YALKUT LECH LECHA 78, from TANA D'VEI ELIYAHU)
Eliahu's words need explanation. Why would G-d prevent people from having children if He loves them? What does it mean that He purifies them? What proof do we have of this from all the tzaddikim that Eliyahu mentions?
G-d prevents people from having children only because He loves them. True fulfillment in this world is being a complete person who is close to G-d. All of the mitzvos that we do are intended to bring us close to Him. This is also true for prayer. When someones needs something badly, he prays with such great intensity that consequently he comes closer to G-d. The more one needs something, the more intensely he prays.
Wanting to have children is one of the most basic human desires, and hence one who prays for children will be vehement in his prayers. Consequently, the person comes closer to G-d through his prayers and through his anguish. When G-d loves someone, he wants to give them the gift of being close to Him. He may therefore prevent one from having children so that the individual will constantly pray with great fervor, and this will keep him very close to G-d.
Even though a person receives great pleasure from children, the greatest pleasure that a human being can have is to be close to G-d, and that is the very purpose for which we are here in this world. When someone does not have children, he has the golden opportunity to become close to Him. Since he needs G-d's help so much, he is bound to pray with all his heart.
Another factor that prevents a person from having children is the lack of worthiness because of sins. Therefore one needs the suffering for purification in order to earn the merit needed to have children. The idea of purification arises from the fact that every person has sins, as the verse say "There is no person in the world who does good and does not sin." Hence the suffering that someone goes through when he does not have children is an atonement for his sins. That is why our Sages call it "purifying."
The proof that being barren is a privilege given only to those who are loved by G-d, is the fact that all the great people mentioned by Eliyahu had this exact problem. They were known as the greatest tzaddikim in the world and were surely loved by G-d. This is the clue which helps us understand that to those G-d loves, He grants the privilege of being barren.
If a married couple does not have children, this can be a cause of great tension between them. This is especially true when doctors say that one of them is responsible for the problem. But we know from the words of the above midrash that the medical reason the doctors give is only one of the hidden ways that G-d is showing that He loves this couple and is waiting for their prayers. The person whom the doctors say is to blame is the more privileged one, since it is implicit that he or she is especially loved by G-d.
There is no reason to feel guilty for not having children. Often it makes a couple feel uncomfortable when everyone else has children and they don't. Should someone feel guilty when he is loved by G-d? Being barren is a message from Him that one's prayers are wanted, and this should inspire that couple to open their hearts in prayer.
A couple that are barren are capable of praying with tremendous intensity. They gain closeness to G-d that others cannot attain. This should be seen as a privilege that others do not have, and in that respect they should be thankful to G-d for what He has given them.
Even if many years have gone by, that is no reason to stop praying. Even if the doctors have given up hope, that does not mean that the gates of mercy are closed in Heaven. There is always room for mercy, no matter how desperate the situation may seem. Avraham and Sarah waited seventy five years until they had a child. So if you have not yet been married for seventy five-years, there is still plenty of hope!
Our Sages say that even if a sharp sword is on the neck of a person, he should not give up hope of receiving mercy. G-d wants us to ask for mercy, and to realize that everything depends on Him. It is our task to recognize that He wants to grant us our requests, if only we will pray enough.
This problem of not having children should strengthen the bond between the couple, since they should know that they have been specially chosen for this task of intense prayer and devotion to Him. Together they can pray for His mercy and together they can continue their efforts to have children. Our Sages say that a person is asked when he comes to heaven, "Did you try to have children?" 5 The fact that we are asked such a question indicates that it is the responsibility of the couple to try in every way possible to have children. This includes seeking medical intervention, but it especially requires intensive efforts in prayer.
If the couple has enough trust and faith in G-d, then this trial will strengthen them spiritually and strengthen their
marriage, since they will be combining their efforts to meet this
greatest of spiritual challenges together.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network