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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, and A Wise and Understanding People.
Last week’s Torah portion of V’Etchanan concluded with Moses exhorting the Jewish people to faithfully observe and execute G-d’s commandments. This week’s Torah portion – Eikev – therefore begins with the reward and the positive consequences for doing so.
What is the reward for following G-d’s commandments? Moses begins with the assurance that G-d will keep His promises, honor His covenant with the Jewish people, love them and bless them. After that, however, Moses gets into more specific blessings, the very first of which is:
“He will bless the fruit of your womb” (Deuteronomy, 7:13) – the blessing of fertility. In the very next verse, this blessing is repeated, in the negative: “You will be blessed above all peoples. There will be no sterile male or barren female among you or your livestock.” Deuteronomy, 7:14. This echoes the similar blessing given by G-d in Exodus: “There will be no bereaved or barren woman in your land” (Exodus, 23:26); and this very same blessing is repeated in the Torah portion of Ki Tavo: “Blessed will be the fruit of your womb.” Deuteronomy, 28:4.
How interesting it is, that of all of the Jewish people’s wants, needs and desires, the blessing that appears to be given the most prominence is that of fertility!
In fact, you may recall the laws relating to the “Sotah” – the “Straying Wife” – that are discussed in the Torah portion of Naso. There the Torah describes how a wife who is accused of infidelity under a very specific circumstances (more on that when we return to that Torah portion), must undergo a certain extremely humiliating and taxing ritual designed to determine whether she was, in fact, unfaithful to her husband. The ritual concludes with her drinking a cup of water in which the ineffable name of G-d has been scraped off of the parchment on which it was written. Moments later, if the woman was indeed guilty of infidelity, she would immediately die a gruesome death, and would “be a curse among her people”. On the other hand, if she was not guilty, evidenced by the fact that she did not die from the water, instead of being a curse among her people, “she shall be exempted and bear seed.” Fertility, therefore, is the consolation prize for the innocent woman who is forced to undergo the humiliating Sotah ritual.
Perhaps, as with most interesting psychological phenomena, this emphasis on fertility traces back to our (collective) parents.
Abram was sterile, and Sarai was barren – until G-d changed Abram’s name to Abraham, Sarai’s name to Sarah, and blessed them with the miracle of childbirth during their declining years. Even then, Sarah had just one child: Isaac.
Isaac married Rebecca, who, it turns out, was also barren – and Isaac must have considered the possibility that he, too, might have been sterile. Thus, both prayed to G-d until He answered their prayers with a single set of twins: Jacob and Esau. They had no children beyond those two.
Jacob married Rachel and Leah. Both of them were barren. Nevertheless, with respect to Leah, “the Lord saw that Leah was hated, so He opened her womb.” Genesis, 29:31. Thus, through divine intervention, Leah was able to bear children. Rachel, however, remained barren until “God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and He opened her womb.” Genesis, 30:22. She then had two children, Joseph and Benjamin – and died in childbirth.
Statistically, approximately 10% of women in the United States have infertility issues. The rate of infertility among Jewish women does not appear to diverge much from the national average. Thus, the fact that each one of our matriarchs was barren, is either a statistical fluke, or a genetic anomaly within that particular extended family – the family that G-d chose to bear His nation.
So it may be that G-d taps into our collective consciousness and notes a latent fear of infertility, and promises that we will be fruitful; or maybe He seeks to offset the genetic barrenness that we have all inherited from our forefathers.
But, just maybe, the very reason for our barren ancestry, and G-d’s blessings of fertility are intended to communicate a very important message.
There are so many things that we take for granted, things that we assume are the natural products of biology, geology, or any other scientifically-described system.
For example, we naturally expect rain in the proper season, to fertilize the soil and cause crops to grow. However, G-d specifically made this natural occurrence in the Land of Israel contingent upon the performance of his commandments. As it states elsewhere in this week’s Torah portion: “the land that you are crossing into…is watered by the rains of heavens (Deuteronomy, 11:10) – yet it is only “if you hearken to My commandments that I command you this day…[that] I will give the rain of your land at its time, the early rain and the latter rain…[and] if you turn away…He will close off the heavens, and there will be no rain.” Deuteronomy, 11:13-17. In other words, G-d wants the “natural occurrence” of rainfall in the Land of Israel to be tied to the supernatural relationship between us and G-d. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Israel has so frequently throughout history been the subject of droughts – because it is a land that G-d wants us to treat as one whose very ecological system reflects the ebb and flow of our bond with Him. As G-d intended the daily dose of Manna in the desert to foster the Jewish people’s dependence upon Him for their sustenance, He sought to continue that dependent relationship in the Promised Land.
So too may it be said of Jewish fertility. Perhaps our matriarchs were barren because G-d wanted to teach us not to take childbirth for granted, but rather that each life is a gift – a gift that announces His presence in our lives. Our matriarchs ultimately did bear children – children who went on to father many nations – yet they did so as a result of turning to G-d, and reaffirming their relationship with Him. It wasn’t something that happened naturally, as a matter of course; an event of such triviality that its occurrence and import could go virtually unnoticed. Rather, in Eikev, G-d announces to us that our fertility and our fecundity are a deliberate blessing; a profound gesture of affection and intimacy towards his own children.