02. The Effort of Repentance, Torah, and Kindness

It is a mitzva for every couple that has difficulty fulfilling the mitzva of procreation to avail themselves of all conventional medical methods in order to have children. While doing so, they should have faith that everything is under God’s benevolent supervision, refining and purifying them, to increase their joy in this world and the next, and to give them the privilege of improving the world.

The Sages say that a person who is suffering should scrutinize his actions. Perhaps if he corrects his shortcomings, his suffering will end. If he scrutinizes his actions and does not find any particular sin, he should consider that perhaps he sinned by neglecting Torah study. If so, strengthening his Torah study may allow him to realize his destiny and be spared from suffering. If he determines that he has not neglected Torah study, it must be that his suffering is “suffering of love” (yisurim shel ahava), that is, suffering whose purpose is the betterment of all, the perfection and refinement of the world (Berakhot 5a).

In any event, even when suffering results from sin or neglect of Torah study, if a person can correct it, he not only betters himself, but benefits the whole world, for the world is judged based on the deeds of the majority of its inhabitants. “If a person performs one mitzva, he is praiseworthy, for he has tipped the scales toward merit for himself and for the entire world. But if he commits even one sin, woe to him, for he has tipped the scales toward guilt for himself and the whole world” (Kiddushin 40b).

The Sages say, “Great is repentance, for it rips up the sentence issued against a person” (Rosh Ha-shana 17b). Not only does repentance rectify the sin of the penitent himself, sometimes it can even rectify sins of previous generations. It may be that a person has been sentenced to be childless because of those sins, and by returning sincerely to God, immersing himself diligently in Torah study, and performing acts of kindness, he can cause the sentence to be torn up, and then he will have children.

We learn a similar lesson from Ḥofni and Pinḥas, the sons of the high priest Eli, who desecrated the name of heaven in the Tabernacle in Shilo. Because their father did not object strenuously enough to their behavior, he was told, “A time is coming when I will break your power and that of your father’s house, and there shall be no elder in your house” (1 Shmuel 2:31). Indeed, for the next few generations, all of Eli’s descendants died young. As time went on and they married into other families, the only descendants who were affected were those who were named after Eli or whose souls were connected to him. Even a thousand years later, there were still descendants of Eli who carried on his legacy, and the curse affected them. The Talmud says that Rabbah and Abaye were both descendants of Eli, and were expected to die very young. However, they followed the Sages’ instructions and repented sincerely. Rabbah studied Torah diligently and was privileged to live to the age of forty. Abaye engaged in Torah study and acts of kindness, and lived to be sixty. This accords with the homiletic interpretation of the verse, “Assuredly I swear concerning the house of Eli that the iniquity of the house of Eli will never be expiated by [animal] sacrifice or [meal] offering” (ibid., 3:14). The Sages explain: “An animal sacrifice or a meal offering will not atone for the sin, but Torah and kindness will” (Rosh Ha-shana 18a).[1]

Similarly, our ancestors Avraham and Sarah gave birth to Yitzḥak in the merit of drawing people closer to Torah. Avraham reached out to the men and Sarah reached out to the women. They invited guests into their home and taught them about God, thus combining Torah study and acts of kindness. It was fitting, then, that they were entertaining guests when they received the news that they would have a child.

Moving to Israel – the land of life – and developing it can also help the childless to conceive and bring new life to the world (see Yevamot 64a).


[1]. It is worth noting that although Rabbah did not combine his Torah study with acts of kindness like Abaye did, and thus died younger, the halakha follows him in almost every disagreement in which he was involved (Bava Batra 114b). In contrast, Abaye combined his Torah study with acts of kindness, so although he lived to sixty, the halakha does not follow him in most of the disagreements in which he was involved (Bava Metzi’a 23b).

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