Why Parashat Vayeira Speaks to Me About Challenges in My Life
Parashat Vayeira is rich in gleanings about hospitality, kindness, righteousness, jealously, reconciliation, and, particularly, faith and commitment to God.
Most parashiyot are equally rich, but for me, Vayera is special. It is the parashah of my conversion. My first aliyah – the first time I was called to the Torah – was for the last section, when Abraham is ready to sacrifice Isaac, his and Sarah’s son of their old age. The miracle child that made Sarah laugh, first with disbelief and later, I imagine, with joy and strengthened faith.
I always wanted children, three or more, so I took parashah Vayeira as a good omen. Maybe I, too, was going to be a mother later in life after all. Now I’m 43 and have none.
When I found myself divorced four years ago, there was still hope: Fertility-wise, things weren’t over. Eventually, I fell in love with a man who, after two years of an on-and-off affair, recently left for good, not without informing me that I had always been too old to give him the many children he sees himself fathering. The heartbreak was so painful because I had to face many sad truths at the same time – including the fact that he had a point.
When it comes to confronting poignant reality, Jewish tradition says: Find ways to rejoice even in moments of sadness – and I want to. Then again, accepting childlessness is not easy for many women, including three of the four matriarchs, who prayed desperately to conceive. For all Judaism’s wisdom, beauty, and the comfort it bestows, accepting the reality of childlessness isn’t made easier by a religion that is as much about passing on the tradition from generation to generation as it is about meticulously recording the names and lines of ancestors close and distant.
Jews toast to life, and that’s what children are: life and continuity. Had God not remembered Sarah, Abraham and his wife might have been a couple with an avant-garde religious concept that more likely than not would have ended with them.
As a childless convert, without a genetic line that links to my past or my future, my inclusion in the Jewish tribe sometimes feels like a guest appearance. True, Ruth’s progeny set high standards. Nevertheless, confronting sad truths has lead to my first real struggle with the meaning of faith.
What exactly does faith mean, and do I actually have faith? How strong is it? Can I give up hope and keep the faith? Can I be realistic without losing faith?
The Torah doesn’t make these distinctions. “Being realistic” is not a parameter with which to approach the Akeidah. Abraham was so committed to God – his faith was so strong – that he would have sacrificed his son, Isaac, whom he loved and who represented his and Sarah’s future. Although we don’t hear about Sarah’s reaction, she must have been quite realistic in the assessment of the capacities of her husband’s faith. (The medieval commentator Rashi says Sarah died of a broken heart because she thought Isaac had, in fact, been sacrificed.)
A few chapters earlier, Hagar, Abraham’s cast-out concubine and the mother of Ishmael, was desperate because she thought her (and Abraham’s) son Ishmael would die of thirst in the wilderness of Beersheba. Some commentators depict her as panicking and therefore flawed, but did she not have realistic reasons to despair? Both mothers had! And in the end, both mothers got to keep their children through divine intervention.
Tempting as it remains upon reading Vayeira, waiting for divine intervention or for the day when I might be able to adopt can’t be the only solution to my situation. Instead, I work to come up with other ways to contribute to the lines of the Jewish people.
I work for a Jewish organization, but I could also become involved in more forms of outreach. I could take up Jewish studies, maybe even study to be a rabbi. Why not, and why not in Israel? I could help foster the re-rooted Jewish tradition in Germany, where I was raised, and where my niece is growing up Catholic. Maybe her Jewish aunt Julia from New York will make some sort of lasting impression on her.
Nothing can replace having children of my own – but one day, I want to hear myself laugh and think of Sarah, knowingly: I didn’t expect to feel this fulfilled anymore, but it did happen after all. In the meantime, I’ll work on finding the balance between being realistic, having hope, and having faith.