Double Mitzvah – Noach

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Maya B. Alma. Maya B. Alma is Jewrotica’s new Double Mitzvah columnist!

Larry is a Rabbi at Temple Mount Sinai in El Paso, Texas. He was ordained a rabbi in 1998 at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Larry is a practitioner and teacher of Jewish Mindfulness Meditation and an alumni of CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders program. Larry and his wife Alanna have three wonderful daughters.

Check out last week’s column, Double Mitzvah – Bereishit.

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Rated PGNear the end of this week’s portion, as we are introduced to the family who will occupy our attention for the rest of the book of Genesis, we learn this bit of information: “Now Sarai was barren, she had no child” (Genesis 11:30). Of all the things we might have learned about Sarai (later Sarah), this is what Torah leads with. Not her beauty, not her kindness, but her “barrenness.” To would-be parents who have struggled to conceive, the Torah‘s take on childlessness can have the effect of rubbing salt in a fresh and painful wound. Understanding the Torah‘s seeming obsession with fertility can be helpful, and is the focus of this week’s “Double Mitzvah.”

My goal is not to defend the text from the justifiable anger of those who’ve been hurt by it. Were we to write a new Torah today, knowing what we do about fertility, we would probably not choose to make fecundity (or the lack thereof) such a prominent theme. But for our ancestors, it was God, and God alone, who “opened” or “closed” the womb. (Well, they did know what caused it…but you get the picture). Children were a symbol of divine blessing…and the inability to conceive was evidence of a lack of divine favor (for the woman…always the woman).

Sarai’s barrenness foreshadows that of Rebecca (Genesis 25), and Rachel (Genesis 29). Indeed, the only Matriarch who conceived with little trouble was Leah, the less-loved older sister who only wound up married to Jacob because of a bait-and-switch at the altar (and even she is described as having her womb “opened by God” because she was unloved by Jacob). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; we’ll unpack that story in a few weeks. Further along in Torah, the mothers of Samson (Judges 13) and Samuel (I Samuel 1) are initially unable to conceive, and their births are understood to be miraculous.

And this is what I take away from the Bible’s obsession with barrenness: even from the biblical authors’ perspectives, it is not so much a negative judgment on the woman as it is a signal that someone special is about to be born. Isaac. Jacob. Joseph. Benjamin. Samson and Samuel. So many of the Bible’s protagonists are the children of mothers who had difficulty conceiving, and whose wombs were opened by God. God didn’t choose Israel because they the greatest, the most powerful; to the contrary, they were small, they were slaves. The most powerful, most central message in Torah is that God loves the underdog…and the women of the Bible who conceive after a long stretch of difficulty doing so are certainly that.

Something else we can learn from the biblical barrenness stories is what NOT to say to people who are having trouble conceiving. Jacob’s outburst at Rachel (Genesis 30:2), in which he drags God into her pain is instructive. But it’s Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, who takes the prize for Stupidest Thing Ever Said By Any Husband To His Wife Ever, when he attempts to console her pain at her childlessness by pointing out that he’s a really great guy, and that ought to be enough for her (I Samuel 1:8).

No, for people who wish to bring new life into the world and find it difficult or impossible, attempts to comfort will almost always fall short. Resources help and this book is a good place to start. Ultimately, there is nothing better we can offer people who are weeping with Hannah, Rachel, Rebecca and the rest than our hearts.

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  • Guest

    Rabbi? You are an apikoires who does not believe in the divine origin of the torah

    • Ayo Oppenheimer

      Oh, dear. Guest, I should remind you that Jewrotica is a pluralistic platform that welcomes the breadth of Jewish life and expression.

      Even if you take objection to this specific piece, there is likely other content on the site that is more fitting for you. And, even if you have major theological differences from our writer, you may still be able to learn something of relevance and value from his writings.

      Regardless, your opinions are welcome here, but let’s try to keep things friendly and respectful. Thanks and Shabbat Shalom!

  • Ayo Oppenheimer

    Rabbi Bach, thank you for sharing this reflection with us!

    Using the Torah as a lens through which we can instill greater sensitivity in our community (vis a vis fertility or any other issue) is important and valuable. Regardless of the philosophical or theological differences referenced below, the plight of our foremothers and the awareness that you speak of is something that we can all learn from.

    Shabbat Shalom!

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