Sign In Forgot Password

Parshat Ekev D'var Torah by Judy Katz Howard

14/08/2017 11:56:57 AM

Aug14

“ And if you do hear these rules and keep them and perform them, God will maintain for you the covenant and the love  that He swore to your fathers.  He will  love you and bless you and multiply you.  He will bless the fruit of  your belly and the fruit of your soil, your new grain and new wine and oil, the calving of your herd, and the lambing of your flock in the land that He swore to your fathers to give to you.  You shall be blessed more than all peoples; there shall be no sterile male or barren female "Akar v'Akar" - among you or among your lifestock."

These are the opening words, the promise of Eikev, our weekly Torah portion.

As Reconstructionists we often focus on the first part of that verse “You shall be blessed more than all peoples….”. We have issues with that concept.

Today, I want to focus on the second half of that verse: “there shall be no sterile male or barren female “Akar v’Akara” -  among you, or among your livestock.”  In the Eitz Hayim Chumash, the commentators state that AKARUT or “sterility” was regarded as one of the greatest human tragedies.  Hundreds of fertility charms have been found by archaeologists, testifying to the longing for children in the ancient Near East.”

 “And God blessed them and said to them, be fruitful and multiply…” Jewish tradition considers this to be the first of the Torah’s 613 commandments. Later, God promises Abraham, “I will make you exceedingly fertile”. From this, the Talmud and Rabbis derive the critical obligation, interestingly just on men, to marry and have children. This commandment is so important that, according to the Mishnah, if the husband and wife were married for 10 years and had no children, the court could force the man to divorce his wife.  Rabbi Moshe Isserles, in the 16th century, wrote that in his day it was no longer customary for a court to force the divorce of a barren woman, but we must wonder if the underlying sentiments prevail until today.

Judith R. Baskin wrote in “Infertile Wife in Rabbinic Judaism” that the extent to which infertile marriages ended in divorce is impossible to determine, but it is noteworthy that rabbinic aggadic writings generally deplore dissolution of marriages, even when male procreation is at stake.

Many passages in the aggadah present the barren marriage as a situation, where human needs and feelings overrule legal prescriptions.

Let us consider the word “barren” to refer to a woman who wanted to bear a child, wanted to be fruitful, but cannot.  AKARA – or barren – shares the same root letters in Hebrew as the verb “la’akor” – to eradicate or uproot completely, to cut out or cut off – and the same letter roots as the adjective IKAR – meaning fundamental or the essence. 

In the Tanach, we encounter 6 examples of barren women, Sarah, Rebekka, Rachel, Leah, Manoach’s wife, Hannah, and a seventh questionably barren woman: Michal the daughter of King Saul. In the case of the first 6 of these women, it is prayer and intervention of God, or God’s messengers, that overcomes their barren state. They each give birth to a son, and not just any son. Each of these sons is essential to our history: Isaac, the twins Jacob and Esau, Reuven, Joseph, Samson and Samuel. How different would our history had been, had even one of these women remained barren, and these sons not been born? Let’s take a closer look at the circumstances of these barren women in the Tanach and what it meant to each of them to be barren:

  1. SARAH, who was first known as Sarai, “was barren, she has no child” – VaTehi Sarai Akara, Eyn La Valad”. After the hurt of Sarai when the concubine Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, God promised to bless Sarai and give her a son.  And God kept that promise, in the old age of Sarah and Avraham – and Isaac was born.

 

  1. REBEKKA: It was actually Rebekka’s husband Isaac who pleaded with God on behalf of his wife, because she was barren, and God responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekka gave birth to Jacob and Esau.

 

  1. LEAH:  In Genesis it states, “The Lord saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb;... Leah conceived and bore a son to Jacob, and named him Reuven; for she declared, “It means, ‘The Lord has seen my affliction’ and now my husband will love me’”: (Genesis 29:31 -32). Leah went on to bear Jacob a total of six sons and a daughter.

The commentaries state” When God saw that Leah was unloved, He said: “How shall I make her beloved of her husband? Now, I give her children first, so that her husband will love her, and thus I make her stand straight” (Tanhuma, ed. Buber, Vayeze 10).

 

  1. RACHEL:  When Rachel couldn’t conceive, she became envious of her sister Leah and said to her husband Jacob: “Give me children, or I shall die.” …. “Now God remembered Rachel; God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son…. (Genesis 30: 1-7; 22-24).  Rashi (1040-1105 CE):  comments as follows on the words or I shall die: [It is] from here [that we know] that one who has no children is considered as if they are dead.

 

  1. MANO’AH’S WIFE (mother of Samson): From the Book of Judges: “There was a certain man …. whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren and had borne no children. An angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “You are barren and have borne no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son.  …  The woman bore a son, and she named him Samson. The boy grew up, and the Lord blessed him.”(Judges 13: 1-5; 24.)

 

  1. HANNAH (mother of Samuel): From the book of Samuel: “Elkanah… had two wives, one named Hannah and the other Pnina; Pnina had children but Hannah was childless. … Elkana said to her, “Hannah why are you crying and why aren’t you eating?  Why are you so sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?” ….. [Hannah] made this vow: “O Lord of Hosts, if You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and will remember me and not forget your maidservant, and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate him to the Lord for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head…… Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her.  Hannah conceived, and at the turn of the year bore a son.  She named him Samuel meaning “I asked the Lord for him”. “ ( I Samuel 1: 1-20)

 

  1. Michal (King David’s wife):  “Michal the daughter of Saul looked out at the window, and saw King David leaping and whirling before the Lord, and she despised him for it . . . . And Michal …. came out to meet David and said, 'How did the King of Israel do himself honour today – exposing himself today in the eyes of the handmaidens of his subjects, as one of the riffraff might expose himself?' . . . . And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to her dying day (II Sam. 6:14, 16, 20, 23).
    1. The punishment prescribed for Michal (II Sam. 6:23) was that “to her dying day she had no children,” which the Rabbis interpret: she had no children until her dying day, but on her dying day she bore a son. (Michal, daughter of Saul: Midrash and Aggadah, by Tamar Kadari)
  • To these women, being barren meant shame, feeling unloved, disgrace, sadness…. “or I shall die”.
  • Their situation made them desperate to make any bargain in order to be blessed with a son (of course)….

It is interesting to me, that when we look at the opening verses of Ekev, God promises us that if we follow God’s rules, we will be fertile; we will not be barren.  So why do we have these pious women in the Torah (except maybe Michal), who were suffering with barrenness?

Perhaps we need to remember that for the 6 barren women who were pious, they were rewarded and blessed with sons. It was just a stage – albeit a very long stage for some of them – but their suffering was ended by God. Perhaps it is meant to illustrate that we can all have hardships along the way, but there can be redemption.

And then there are those women in real life who remain barren... Interesting that in the entire Tanach, there is not one woman who remains barren her whole life – even Michal, according to legend, gives birth, on her dying day… So God keeps his promise in biblical times. Not all the time in modern times….

Let’s look at Israel, starting in the 20th century. Rachel Bluwstein (“Rachel”) was a beloved poet who lived in Israel at the beginning of the 20th century. Rachel the poet was childless. Her life was cut short by poverty and tuberculosis in 1931 at the age of 40.  Almost every word of her poem AKARA is found in the Bible:

AKARA, a poem by Rachel Bluwstein (“Rachel”)

If only I had a son, a little boy,
with dark curly hair, and bright,
that I might hold his hand and stroll slowly on the paths of the garden.
A little. Boy.

Uri I’d call him, my Uri!
Soft and clear the short name,
a shard of brightness.
My dark and handsome boy;
“Uri” (my light) I'd call him.


I still wax bitter, like Rachel,
I still pray, like Hannah at Shiloh, -------
I still wait for him.

 

Israel today values children, and puts its money where its mouth is.  Israel has the highest rates of IVF (in vitro fertilization treatment) in the world, and defines barrenness as a medical condition. Unlimited IVF cycles of treatment are offered for free, for up to two “take home” babies, for women up to age 45. This policy has been described as evidence of   “government subsidized peer pressure,” an expectation to have children, and a right to be parents.

The following has been written to describe the importance of having children among Jewish women in Israel:

“The unique thing about Israel is that it’s a high-tech culture on the one hand and a very traditional one on the other. It’s not just because of the fear of losing children in high-risk military activity, it’s because family is an extremely important social institution in Israel.”

And what makes a family is the children. “Anyone who lives here is expected to have children. In casual conversation, you will be asked how many children you have and if you say one, people will ask why only one, and if you say two, why only two?”

Beyond the biblical imperative to be fruitful, some Israeli Jews remain concerned with replenishing their numbers in the wake of the Holocaust. And demographics also play a part.

A recent report on Israel’s Channel 10 news titled “Four is the New Three”, suggested that there is a trend for secular Jewish women in Israel to have large families, aiming for 4 children. During our recent trip to Israel in May of this year, our young adult secular Jewish nieces and nephews, as well as their friends, confirmed the same trend within their circle.

So what is it like to live in Israel without children? Isolating, not part of the voyage. Shame. Not valued by society. Not sharing the right to be parents.  Constantly having to endure the question, Nu… so why don’t you have children? It pushes women to undergo aggressive fertility treatments, at the possible expense of their health. It can make life in Israel difficult. I know.

And what about in Canada? People here are more polite, less intrusive. It is easier to live childless here, less questions, less looks. Nobody (or almost nobody) asks why don’t you have one, or two or three or even four children. Women no longer need to have children in our western world in order to avoid extreme poverty if their spouse dies. They no longer need to have children in order to avoid divorce from their husbands.

Today we have therapy, we have support groups, we sometimes even have understanding friends and relatives, who include us in their lives and celebrations. And we can make lemonade, by devoting ourselves to our professions or other fulfilling work, volunteering and becoming involved in our extended family and community, cultivating deep and meaningful friendships, creating loving and meaningful lives with our spouses, finding and creating sources of joy. And yet, for many barren women, underneath all of the achievements and successes, the pain of those six biblical women, so many thousands of years ago, can still be felt. And the promise of Ekev remains elusive. Shabbat shalom.

Wed, 16 June 2021 6 Tammuz 5781