On Destiny, and Complexity

On Destiny, and Complexity

Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.

By Rabbi Susan Silverman

Who shall live and who shall die?

This is a question of the ten days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur. Then we shifted to a new existential experience. Life in a Sukkah. The Sukkah, translated as “booth” is a fragile structure, in which we will share all our meals, hang out and, for some, sleep each night.

To reflect on that time period from a few weeks distance, during National Adoption Awareness Month, is to see that experience through the lens of my own family.

We are a family of seven — in some ways kind of boring, traditional — a mom, a dad, five kids. But we have our own twist. Our children are a mix of born to us and adopted to us.

During the High Holidays, we Jews use a metaphor of a Book of Life. Will we, will our loved ones, be written into it for the coming year? Will that inscription be sealed?

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangulation and who by lapidation, who shall have rest and who wander, who shall be at peace and who pursued, who shall be serene and who tormented, who shall become impoverished and who wealthy, who shall be debased, and who exalted. But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.

In this quite graphic prayer — as in the whole of the high holy day season — and as in our lives — we engage in an interplay between destiny and choice (and, to some extent, as written in the last sentence, control).

True, there are strong cosmic energies in motion, and, to some extent, we can engage those energies. And there are a million other factors — the stories of others unfolding on their paths, our own relevant to them or not, even as we may all be impacted by the same cosmic tides, and to which we respond in our own ways, shaped in no small part by the norms of our societies.

It is in this world of complexity, of knowable(ish) facts, of human lives in all their nuance, and of unseen cosmic forces, that we create our families.

And when adoption helps create our families, the veil that masks these swirlings, is lifted, ever so lightly. Some things that “just are” can no longer be taken for granted.

But there is a danger when we then see that process as completely, or even largely, knowable and in our control. Yet, when adoption is in the mix, some people seem to know “the” truth. Because, somehow, suddenly, that family’s creation is the result of a “knowable” path.

A clear story hides the chaotic nuance of the world:

A woman (we don’t usually even bother with imagining the bio father in theses tales), tragically, is unable to care for her child. This is the result of injustice — usually of (very real) international proportions but not only.

A woman from another country (or zip code if in US) swoops in and takes that child and says, “This child was MY destiny!” “We are a family!” “Past be gone!” And that (white, we imagine…) woman has the NERVE to see the poor, choiceless (brown!) woman as a mere vessel in attaining her dream.

That’s the story.

But it’s not.

Local laws, mores and customs hold much sway. In many countries, neither birth control nor abortion is available. A woman pregnant outside of marriage is shunned or worse.

(A child born without a known father is ineligible for citizenship. Babies lined up like animals in a pen, older children and teens trafficked. It goes on). Just as we want to keep a mother and her children together when that is her desire, it is not our place to force a woman who had an unwanted pregnancy, with no recourse for abortion, to raise that child.

The woman in Nepal who, despite offers for financial assistance from local authorities, chooses the option of a husband over raising her nine-year-old daughter. The sixteen-year-old in Ethiopia who wants her education and her youth back. The Romanian in the abusive relationship who cannot raise a child.

Adoption from foster care seems to get a pass on these questions (actually, until a few very important articles recently), as if internationally, all the birth mothers are victims living in a poverty-ridden vaccuum who want nothing more than to raise their children.

But there are real life and complex stories everywhere, not just in the US. And those birth moms have every right to choose their path going forward and for some, that is the choice.

To NOT raise the baby they love but never wanted. Or, also like in the US, the mother is not able to raise the child for reasons of mental or physical health or social situation.

I was the result of my mother’s second pregnancy. Her first ended in miscarriage. My sisters Laura and Sarah were both born after the death of my parents’ second child, a boy.

His name was Jeffrey Michael. His crib was not set up right; it collapsed and killed him. My father, in particular, always said, “I was meant to be the father of girls.” (He has four daughters.) I have never heard anyone “take offence”.  Are you saying that Jeffrey Michael died so that they could live!? So that you, Donald Silverman, could fulfill your destiny as the father of girls?

No, because all these threads — the knowable and unknowable threads, the unseen forces, the what-we-don’t-even-have-words-for all swirls and we make our stories as best we can from what we experience, see, sense and name.

Our daughters are from our egg, sperm and my body. They were conceived in the exact second that made them who they are. If I weave a tale of meant-to-be, am I saying that the bodies and souls who did not become were sacrificed for our daughters?

Two women who we will never know gave birth to my two sons. Were their lives for the purpose of creating my family, in service to my destiny? I don’t even want to honor those questions with an answer, but at risk of being misunderstood, I will.

  1. Of course not.

That’s some fucked up shit.

Did each of these women have a life path that, against all odds in this world of swirling energies, intersect with mine? Yes. Was that moment the PURPOSE of their lives? No. It was a stop along the way for us all. A painful one for both those mothers, I can only imagine.

For one mother, she didn’t live past childbirth. For the other, I just don’t know. But, if she’s alive, I imagine that the loss of her son was transformative, damaging and a source of deep, lifelong pain.

But it was not the purpose of either of their lives, nor the whole. It just happened to be where our paths crossed.

My friend Jillian Lauren, author of Everything You Ever Wanted, recounts the moment in which she meets her son’s sixteen-year-old birth mother. She placed him for adoption because, if she tried to raise him, the baby’s father’s family would kill her baby.

Her choices would be to leave all she knows, risk the baby’s culturally acceptable murder, or place him for adoption and move on with her life. She chose the last. The orphanage brings the birth and adopting parents together for a ceremony. It is in Amharic with English translation.

It begins: Through God’s divine plan, our journeys have crossed….

Is there something divine as that Amharic prayer suggests? I don’t know.

Have their journeys crossed? Yes.

During Sukkot, we danced hoshanot — calling out to God to save us and we waved bouquets of vegetation: A citron fruit, myrtle leaves, date palm frond, and myrtle leaves. Each comes from its own soil, its own tree, its own eco-system.

Did they come into existence to become part of this crazy dance of fragility and fear, of prayer and promise?

No. But it’s where they are.


Rabbi Susan Silverman, author of Casting Lots: Creating a Family in Beautiful, Broken World, is the Founding Director of Second Nurture: Every Child Deserves a Family — and a Community. She would like to make it clear that the issues she alludes to, such as keeping birth families in tact, are in desperate need of serious domestic, local attention worldwide and systemic attention internationally. This one article is about the concept of destiny and spiritual complexity. She and her spouse have five children ages 24-14 and live in Jerusalem, Israel. She can be found at @rabbasusan, communityadoption.org and at rabbisusansilverman.com.

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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter

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