Infertility is painful. We may struggle with becoming pregnant or with sustaining a pregnancy. Perhaps we struggle with having healthy fetuses capable of life. Or maybe we struggle with stillbirth or a Jewish genetic disease. These experiences are physically and emotionally painful. They call us to question whether we are deserving of parenthood, whether we did something to invite this punishment. Creating another person is among the most magical things we humans are capable of. We know about science and biology, and the process of reproduction, but when it happens or doesn't there is nothing scientific about the way it feels. It feels like magic. We either have it or we don't.
When we experience these struggles, we feel as though our bodies have betrayed us. This process that should be the easiest and most natural of all is somehow nonfunctioning in us. Our wombs that could and should create life may feel instead like tombs, incapable of fulfilling their biological purpose. And in addition, we may feel that we are betraying our partners with our inabilities.
Tol'dot opens with Rebekah's barrenness and Isaac's plea to God on her behalf (Genesis 25:21). Then immediately we are told that Rebekah does conceive and becomes pregnant with twins. It's a story we hear repeatedly in the Torah; a barren woman and then suddenly a pregnancy. Generally, the literary purpose of these stories is to teach us that the child born after such a struggle is important in some way. Sarah is barren until she gives birth to Isaac, Rebekah eventually gives birth to Esau and Jacob, Rachel finally gives birth to Joseph and Benjamin. Later Hannah struggles and prays to God for a child then gives birth to Samuel the prophet, and Samson's mother similarly wrestles with infertility until she gives birth to the great warrior.
I worry about the theology of God opening and closing wombs willy-nilly. It sends a difficult message to those families who struggle with issues of infertility and miscarriage. The message of God deciding for one reason or another that a womb should be opened or closed is that we are deserving or undeserving of having children. I think this is a dangerous message.
The Rabbis struggled with it as well. They write in the midrash:
"Isaac pleaded with Adonai": (Genesis 25:21). R. Azariah said in the name of R. Hanina b. Papa: Why were the matriarchs so long childless? In order that they should not put on airs toward their husbands on account of their beauty. R. Huna and R. Jeremiah1 said: Why were the matriarchs so long childless? In order that the greater part of their lives should be spent without servitude. . . . R. Levi and R. Helbo2 said: Why were the matriarchs so long barren? Because the Holy One, blessed be God, longed to hear their prayer. (Song of Songs Rabbah, chapter II,14:8)
Rabbi Azariah seems to be feel that this will serve as a check to the conceit of the matriarchs. Barrenness is a character builder to avoid vanity, which might be used against their husbands in some way. This is necessary for them for that purpose. That this is a ridiculous and useless statement almost need not be said. But there I've said it, and I stand by it. Moving on...
Rabbis Huna and Jeremiah say something that I find to be very interesting. Rarely do we find the Rabbis to be so insightful about women's lives. So often, childrearing is viewed as the matriarch's primary purpose and only desire. It stands out to hear an ancient Rabbi describe parenthood as servitude. Certainly there is truth in the statement. As every parent knows, your life's focus is changed unimaginably once children are born. Quite often, caring for children may even feel like servitude to someone else's unending and constantly changing needs. Even when we long for parenthood, when it comes it still has its moments. Here, Rabbis Huna and Jeremiah suggest that God was thoughtfully trying to give the matriarchs time to be free of the servitude of motherhood by keeping their wombs closed. While this statement seems to indicate that God is a loving caretaker of the matriarchs in this way, I'm not sure any of them would have described the experience as feeling cared for. Would anyone trying and desiring to conceive feel protected by God when conception doesn't happen for years on end? While I applaud the attempt, I'm not convinced this is the answer either.
The last attempt to answer this difficult question comes from Rabbis Levi and Helbo. They teach that the matriarchs were barren because God longed to hear their prayers. I think this is also not the easiest pill to swallow. For those of us who have wrestled with this issue, the idea that God has controlled the functioning of our bodies so that we might talk to God a little more often, doesn't necessarily comfort. So I'd like us to turn this around. I would rather read these biblical stories not by what Rabbis Levi and Helbo taught, that we struggle because God longs to hear our prayers, but rather when we struggle and we pray, God hears us.
Unfortunately, we well know that even while God might hear us, God does not always heal us. But perhaps God helps us in ways that are more subtle. That is my hope and belief anyway. Even when our struggle may continue, perhaps it becomes easier to bear or we gain wisdom we had not had previously or we are able to help another because of what we are experiencing. Through our prayers, perhaps the pain of infertility is eased in some way.
There is no perfect answer here. The matriarchs did eventually conceive; many of them magically. This is not always so for us. It is my hope that when we pray to God for a child that this prayer is heard above all others. Perhaps through our prayers we will find comfort in our discomfort, and some kind of healing that we can live with. Luckily for us, these days there are a lot of ways to become parents that were not available for our ancestors. Perhaps over time these prayers have come true and all we need to do is change the way we imagine parenthood to come about. Perhaps that might be enough.
- "R. Huna and R. Jeremiah in the name of R. Hiyya b. Abba said. . . ." (Midrash Rabbah: Song of Songs, trans. Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman, B.A., Ph.D. and Maurice Simon, M.A. [New York: The Soncino Press Ltd., 1983], p. 133)
- "R. Levi in the name of R. Shila from Kfar Temarta and R. Helbo in the name of R. Johanan said: . . ." (Midrash Rabbah: Song of Songs, trans. Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman, B.A., Ph.D. and Maurice Simon, M.A. [New York: The Soncino Press Ltd., 1983], p. 134)
Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker joyfully serves as the rabbi for Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, Washington.
"This is the line of Isaac son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac" (Genesis 25:19). So begins our parashah for this Shabbat, a story of new beginnings and repetitions of old patterns. The Hebrew word, translated in the Plaut commentary as "line" is tol'dot, which comes from the Hebrew root, yud-lamed-dalet, a root that is connected to childbirth. The same root, used later in the verse in the word holid, is translated as "begot." The parashah then goes on to relate the story of Isaac's life; his children, his triumphs, and his failures.
The same word tol'dot, is used earlier in Genesis, at the beginning of the second creation story, which focuses on humanity, "This is the chronicle of heaven and earth . . ." (Genesis 2:4). Clearly the heavens and the earth were not giving birth, at least not in the same way humans do, so the translation reflects that. The word connected to giving birth is the same word which is used to let us know that we are about to hear an account. Perhaps a better translation of the word tol'dot in both of these contexts is the word story: "This is the story of Isaac son of Abraham" and "This is the story of heaven and earth."
Humanity's story in the Torah is linked to intimacy. The act of begetting, at least in the Torah, involves relationship with another person. And it is only intimate connection with another person that brings forth the stories of our lives. The story of Isaac, the story of Rebekah, cannot occur without the intimacy that existed between them. Our stories only occur in the relationships that exist between us.
Rabbi Max Weiss is the rabbi at Oak Park Temple B'nai Abraham Zion in Oak Park, Illinois.
Tol'dot, Genesis 25:19–28:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 173–189; Revised Edition, pp. 172–189;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 133–156