Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Torah from Around the World: Parashat Vayetze

Torah from Around the World #248

Jacob and Rachel Facing Infertility // Parashat Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-32:3)
By Rabbi Brad L. Bloom, Rabbi of Congregation Beth Yam, Hilton Head, South Carolina and doctoral student in modern Jewish history at the Hebrew Union College

The Torah describes a particularly difficult conversation on the issue of infertility between Jacob and his cherished Rachel. She is frustrated and angry that she has not been able to conceive a child and she reaches out to Jacob for support. The Torah says: “When Rachel saw she had borne no children to Jacob, Rachel became envious of her sister [Leah] and said to Jacob, ‘Give me children or I will die’” (Genesis 30:1).

One would have hoped for a more compassionate reply: “Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel and he said, ‘Can I take the place of God who has denied you the fruit of your womb’” (Genesis 30:2). The sages were also perplexed by the seemingly callous response to her plea. The commentator Rashi taught that ‘Rachel asked Jacob to pray for her or else the world would die.’

Our sages of blessed memory in one Midrash criticized Jacob. “Said the Holy One blessed be He; ‘Is this the way to answer the troubled?’”(Genesis Rabbah). 

In another Midrash God said to Jacob, “Is this how one replies to an embittered woman? By your life, your sons will stand before her son (Joseph) and he will tell them (Genesis 50:19) ‘Am I a substitute for God?’” (Genesis Rabbah). The point here is that years later, Leah’s sons will ultimately stand before Joseph, second in command to Pharaoh, fearing that Joseph will take vengeance on them after Jacob’s death. All of this, according to the Midrash, is because Jacob spoke harshly to his wife Rachel in her time of distress.

Some commentators try to explain that Jacob was not trying to be hurtful to Rachel but that he was frustrated that her petition should have been presented to God and not him.  The commentator Radak wrote, “Jacob was angry with her for attributing powers to him rather than God alone. If she had merely asked Jacob to intercede for her she would have been justified and he would not have become angry.” P.334

Other sources demonstrate that Rachel did not take kindly to her husband’s harsh reaction. In one Midrash, Rachel confronts Jacob on his behavior reminding him that his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham acted with more compassion than he did. In fact, she criticizes him that both men prayed for their wives. Why couldn't Jacob have done so? Rachel was not afraid to stand up to Jacob and register her disappointment with him implying that he was not the man his father and grandfather were. (Genesis Rabbah)

Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel all contended with initially not being able to conceive and they all directed their prayers to God for a child.  His response in the eyes of some sages was deemed inadequate in those days as it would be for a husband to respond that way to his wife today. A husband has to think carefully how to react to the pain of his wife who is having trouble conceiving a child. By responding the way he did, Jacob does not seem to share with her the deep seated hurt she is experiencing. Is his seemingly insensitive and caustic response indicative of his true underlying feeling of helplessness?  

There is a great deal that this story in Genesis can teach men and women struggling with fertility issues. Medical technology can determine which gender is potentially the source of the medical issue. Mental health professionals provide counseling for the couple. The reality today is that it can be a man who cannot impregnate his wife. He too now can feel shame and a blow to his self esteem and ego that often times characterizes the state of mind that a woman feels. How would he want his wife to respond to his plea or prayer to be able to fertilize her egg?

We cannot change Jacob’s response to Rachel. Yet, men need to think carefully about what they can say to their wives in order to be comforting and supportive of them during this difficult time.

Why couldn't Jacob have just made a prayer instead of reminding her that he was not a god? Men can learn that understanding and compassion goes a long way towards helping a spouse cope with the issue of infertility. Moreover a man should remember that his role in this kind of situation is not automatically to solve the problem. Instead it is to stand by his wife and offer the emotional support she needs.  

Prayer can certainly make all the difference in the world in how the couple together faces the emotional and spiritual challenges of trying to become pregnant. It is true that Jacob or any man cannot simply grant his wife’s request to conceive as it is not in her power to grant his hopes to all of a sudden be able to impregnate his wife. Now that there are so many avenues both medical and psychological available to couples it becomes clear why this is a journey shared together. Progressive Jewish congregations treat this issue seriously. With men and women serving as rabbis and some congregations even offering programs that help couples find the support they need from their religious community, couples can blend the medical, mental health and religious communities into a positive tapestry of hope. Hopefully the strength and consolation that a couple can receive in their prayers from the Eternal One can support them to fulfill their dream towards receiving the blessing of a child. Neither man nor woman can play the role of God nor should they close their hearts off to the prayers of the other.

Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Yam in Hilton Head, South Carolina and is a doctoral student in modern Jewish history at the Hebrew Union College. You can follow Rabbi Bloom on his blog