Birth and Destiny

Richard Lederman
October 22, 2014
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One might find it odd that the rate of infertility in the Bible seems out of proportion. To start, there are the three matriarchs right in a row: Sarah, Rebecca and the beloved Rachel. Rival sister Leah is fertile but unloved. Then there’s the beloved wife of Elkanah, Hannah of Rosh Hashanah fame, mother of the great priest and prophet Samuel. We shouldn’t forget the unnamed wife of Manoach, mother of Samson, considered a great hero despite his rather promiscuous life style. Why so many, or more to the point, why so many of these particular women, who end up giving birth to great leaders? The fact is, as many of us are aware, there is a fascinating correlation in classical literature between great, transformational leaders and the perilous circumstances surrounding their birth. Moses was exposed on the water, as was King Sargon of Akkad, founder of a great dynasty in Mesopotamia. So, too, was Romulus, founder of Rome. Oedipus the King of Freudian fame was exposed on a mountain, as was King Cyrus, conqueror of Babylon and founder of the Persian Empire.

As I said, these are transformational leaders, but what this month’s discussion in Sh’ma reveals is their transformational parents. In the Bible, it’s the mothers who transform and are transformed. In this patriarchal society, the men seem largely concerned with property and inheritance. Rebecca, on the other hand, receives a divine oracle and works to actualize its impact on the covenant promise to the younger son, while her husband remains blinded to this transformational moment. Hannah’s desire for the miracle of birth allows her to offer back her child for a lifetime of service to God. Likewise, Samson’s mother wants only to understand her duty in preparing her son for his divinely-ordained mission.

What strikes me about the personal testimonies in this issue of Sh’ma is the way the experience of infertility has led to such dramatic transformations in the lives of the people struggling with it and the profound insights that are borne of these transformations. I was especially touched by the stories of adoptive and surrogate parenthood, a sequel to infertility and exposure that occurs in many of our classical stories. Moses was raised by an adoptive parent, as were Sargon, Cyrus and Romulus, all destined to become founders of great civilizations. Perhaps it was this thought—the powerful image of adoptive parenthood—that most attracted me to Jan Silverman’s story of adoption. Her memoir reminds me of the profound words of The Prophet as articulated by the great Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran in the section of the prophet’s utterances titled “On Children.” “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” The Prophet (Wadsworth Classics of World Literature) [Kindle Edition]. By: Kahlil Gibran, Tom Griffit. Sold By: Amazon Digital Services, Inc. That’s the message that I took from Jan Silverman’s piece. I have two children, both of marrying age, both childless by choice. At times I feel like an infertile grandfather, if there is such a thing. But I know that I have my own mission, my own destiny, as they have their own. No, we’re not destined to be Moses, Sargon, Cyrus, Romulus, Superman, Eleanor Roosevelt or any of the other great children of destiny whose lives unfolded in separation from their birth parents. But it is our destiny, and we must own it, as our children must own theirs.

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Richard Lederman holds a BA in Religion from Miami University (Ohio) and a Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literature from the Annenberg Research Institute, now the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylania. After nearly 30 years as a Jewish communal professional, most recently as Director of Public Policy and Social Action for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Lederman now teaches courses in Bible, Religion and Comparative Mythology at Georgetown University and Montgomery College, Maryland, as well as online Bible courses for Gratz College in Philadelphia. He blogs at

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