“The Pangs of Birth”
There are times of emergency and times of slow-slow moves. We may not notice that some very dramatic events affecting our personal lives and the society we live and work in and with may move off and speed up unexpectedly. We may subconsequently show some tendency to moral “laziness” refusing to accept changes.
Israeli society is very special: we are assembled beyond our differences in coping or not with modernity, swiftness or slowness, sort of stagnation. There is a spiritual disease called “akedia/ακεδια” in Greek that corresponds to some extent to Talmudic “atslutעצלות-עצלנות – laziness, indolence”. Talmud Sukka 27b states: “I like laggards (atslanimעצלנים) because they cannot even leave their home on a festive day”. True, “akadia/ακαδια” is a very severe absence of motion affecting human will and desire to evolve. Reflection, thoughts, dynamics shelter into the swindling caves of our consciousness in order to sleep in. They also may be on a play and faint to ignore outside realities.
Is it possible to dawdle or loiter as how to reach a minimum of efforts and always expect assistance from others, then slow-slow fall asleep or lose our alertness? This can be a personal selfish and own tendency that leads a soul and the body that shelters the soul to sleep and auto-mutilation. Both become lame or sleep as in a fake death context. This can lead to suicide.
There are people who are contented because they do not have to move or wake up. This can be the consequence of strong authoritarism that progressively wipes out and erases mind and brain capacities. It has always been the case. On the other hand, by the time of the Hebrew Patriarchs, people were on a move. Not in train, buses, planes, subways or even escalators. Muscles had to go on whilst neurones were on high alert.
Our present disease is not that God directly tells us we have to face the challenges of our lives; Abraham had to be tested and overcome, surface ten Tests. He did it without any claim. He did not intervene for his sake, but for the inhabitants of Sodom. Prophet Elijah was also depressed. Job too as Jonah. As saint Paul stated, Abraham went through the tests in full confidence to God. His son Isaac and grandson Jacob wandered back and fro.
Abraham was a decider. Yitzchak is reminded in this week’s reading portion “Vayetzei/” ויצא as having a “Pachad HaShemפחד ה’ – Fear for God”. “Fears-pachadimפחדים” can be a very respectful feelings in front of God’s almighty powers and creative capacities. In human society, this can be compared to brakes that would curb any move in order to avoid resolving pending problems.
Yaakov was a mild mom’s kid and he will remain a sweet boy until he fought with some angel who slashed his hip and thigh sinew. Then, in his weakness, he will limp ahead with more self-confidence. But to begin with, he is a “ish tamאיש תם – a mild man”, though “tamתם” involves some “fulfillment”. He went out of Beer Sheva and met Rachel, a shepherdess, Laban’s daughter, in order to obey his father and mother’s commandment to marry within the original tribe, their kinsmen. There he spent a long time not doing anything, a kind of non-paying non-profitable guest. Laban told him it was not fair even for a relative.
They spoke “wages” and Jacob agreed to work seven years for Laban to be given Rachel as a wife. The reality of the deal concluded in his receiving her sister Leah first. And, indeed – for the sake of love – he only was given Rachel after fourteen years of labor. This is the kind of local agreement that often turns to cheat and fraud as we have it daily in our society, including women issues.
With regards to Jacob, this is typical consequence of some childlike and fresh boyish mellowed-out attitude. He woke up and faced burdening problems. On the other hand, the wives were doing fine. Well, more or less: full competition and here is Rachel’s plus over Leah. Firstly, Yaakov loved her and she loved him. Leah was unloved (“s’nu’aשנוא – hated”) and thus God “opened her womb – rachmahרחמה = showing loving-kindness”, i.e. four babies in a row while Rachel remained barren.
There will not be any love, but Leah will grow in some sort of “aversion-hate” toward Yaakov that can drive a woman totally mad till she will even think she can, as Leah declared: “yillavehילוה – be fastened, bound to her husband through Levi, their son. And she stopped bearing with Yehudah.
Unfavored Rachel, nebech (too bad, poor thing, a key word in Yiddish), is furious, envious of her sister. And there goes the gung ho! Well, she was not in the WWII Pacific battalion that adopted these words, but she hit the sack, did not remain a gizmo, and like any female “flak” violently burst her shells against her mild husband. She gave him an order: “Take Bilhah, my servant and get me children”. And the man did obey his wife as he had obeyed his parents. Then Rachel is still gung ho at getting her own children: “Give me children or I shall die”, she says to Jacob who is incensed at her. The word is delicious in English.
Violence and passion? Yes, because of true love facing unborn children, sterility. We can understand that in this region in constant baby boom. The competitors are basically the same as at the time of Yaakov and Rachel. The problems are the same: to bear babies because God is merciful. Can children replace the absence of love between the parents? Would a wife, a partner, a lover be willing to tie up a man and get more love or possess their children because of a some frustration. This is so current and archaically fits with special niches in many women intense emotions. Children are also those who can work when the parents get old or they can prevent accidents. The West is far to hedonistic and selfish, wealthy or thinks it is; Westerners only trust themselves and have a selected sense of history. For the Jewish tradition, birthing means to introduce into redemption.
Yaakov’s answer might not show that often… though… who knows? He had said to Rachel: “Can I take the place of God?” We are in a region, samples of cultures where sterility can be considered as a proof or an argument that love is absent; then, marriage, family life can be released to err here and there, which, at the present, raises the problem of secular divorces, separation, difficult gittin (religious divorce bills).
Sterility is in crisis. Men are fragilized just as women can be but seminal loss of fertility is something different from women’s ovulation process. Jewish tradition focuses on something else.
Is it possible to replace individuals as tumors may be removed, period? Or are we bound to emotional imprints that, developing from early age to adulthood, allows some people to find the chosen or very special one and build a family with God’s love. In Leah’s and Rachel’s bonds to Yaakov, the acting factor is the closure or opening of the women’s wombs.
“Ekeretעקרת – barren” means “uprooted, rootless”, mutilated in her womanhood and capacity as a woman in witnessing that love does exist and can more: lead to the fecundity of bodies and souls. Talmud Berakhot 44b states: “There will be no barren one amongst you (cf. Deuteronomy 7:14 referring to “Ekevעקב = Yaakov”), i.e., there will be no one ignoring or not knowing the Scripture”.
When finally “God opened Rachel’s womb… and she bore a son, she said: “God has taken away (asaphאסף = harvested) my disgrace” and she called the him “Yosephיוסף” (added as an growth). There is a kind of “harvest” in either removing a disgrace or adding a son of man who, as Rachel’s Yoseph, will be rejected by his brothers, sold and save them and their father from the famine as he held an unexpected position in Egypt and married an Egyptian woman, the mother of Ephraim and Menashe.
Rachel won in a special way: Jacob was finally willing to leave Laban and he did. Leah bore the ancestor of the Leviimלויים – Levites; Rachel birthed the man who pardoned the jealousy of his people represented by his own brothers who had left him half dead in a cistern, then sold him – out of envious jealousy. In return, he nourished them.
Maybe because of our demographic “requirements or fears”?, or because we reached a time when high-technology and scientific knowledge indeed give the possibility to challenge human laws governing what is normal or abnormal, admissive or prohibited in order to give birth without harming authentic womanhood? Who really knows or understands?
The Israeli Jewish cultural realm need the “teshuvotתשובות – responsae” provided by scholars like Rav Tzitz Eliezer Waldenberg who was a Talmudic decision-maker in matters of abortion. And also to read them with consideration to scientific developments. The recent development of the State of Israel and the big impact of women in all the sectors of our society should give them the opportunity to improve, with the insight of their women’s views and own experience to achieve male explanations that can only be like Yaakov answer: “Can we be God?”
Is it healthy or simply wise to bear children at 50 years old or more? Does it make sense to “hire wombs” in order to “replace ours”? Or to force a woman to give birth at any price? The challenge is whether we confide in God or rely upon selfish desires. The question is real, can hurt… or be convenient. And this concerns very young girls or women without experience, at odds with their environment as with mature wives struggling with age or senior male husbands or partners.
The Gospel starts with the same question. The first chapter of the Evangelist Luke (1:1-2:14) reports the birth of John the Baptist or Forerunner into an aging couple, Elizabeth and Zechariah who was of the priestly division of Abijah. Elizabeth was an “Ekeretעקרת” and old. On the other hand, she received the visit of her cousin, Mary, who was a very young maiden.
In both cases, as Yaakov dealing with Leah and Rachel, the priest Zechariah and Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary, face the same attitude of faith and trust as Jacob: “Can I replace God who can open your womb?”
Is there any border to love and trust or, on the contrary, the Scripture shows us the combat of men and women on their way to faith, debating with pragmatic human emotional disputes and responses?
Av Aleksandr (Winogradsky Frenkel)