Infertility – A Shared Problem
Mi Dor va Dor — from generation to generation – these words have a special significance in our tradition. They symbolize the continuity of the chain of passing on Jewish tradition despite centuries of persecution, due to which throughout the first thousand years after the destruction of the Temple the number of Jews living across the world significantly decreased. In addition, they reflect the concerns of generations of Jews worried whether they will be able to produce offspring who would carry on the tradition of their parents and grandparents in difficult times.
Ele toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham — “This is the story [generations; offspring] of Isaac, son of Abraham.” (Genesis 25:19) – these are the opening words of our Parashat. We can only wonder whether the sages who established the Torah reading cycle chose these words for the beginning of our Parashat because they wanted to bring to our attention the suffering caused by infertility, which in their view made it impossible to fully enjoy family life.
This interpretation seems to be confirmed by the following verses of our Parashat, in which we read,
Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac pleaded with the [Eternal] [facing] his wife, because she was barren; and the [Eternal] responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived. Isaac was sixty years old when they [Jacob and Esau] were born. (Genesis 25:20-21,26.)
Isaac and Rivka waited for their offspring for twenty years! What’s interesting is that if we translate the above quoted Hebrew text literally, it turns out that Isaac is not praying ON BEHALF of his wife, but facing his wife. Rashi interpreted this verse literally, claiming that Isaac and Rivka stood facing each other as they were pleading together, with their faces directed towards each other. This interpretation makes Rivka’s infertility not only a tragedy for the man who was worried that he wouldn’t be able to prolong his line, since it stresses that fertility problems pose a great psychological burden on both sexes. Sforno, the Italian Renaissance-era commentator, explained these words in a different way, noting that Isaac was aware of the promise assuring that Abraham’s family line would be made into a great nation and that he trusted that this promise would be fulfilled. Therefore he was pleading not so much for having any children (with any of his potentially many wives), but for having children specifically with Rivka. These interpretations can serve as a guideline for men supporting their female partners who are having trouble getting pregnant.
You could ask: And what about male infertility? Does our tradition, established in patriarchic Biblical times, allow for the possibility that it could be in fact the man who is infertile?
In tractate Yevamot 64a of the Babylonian Talmud we find exactly such an interpretation! Rabbi Yitzhak (aptly named!) claims there that not only Rivka, but Isaac as well was infertile, which explains why they were praying together. Such an explanation for why they were praying together helps us (and all the generations engaged in Talmudic studies) realize that women are not the only ones responsible for infertility problems.
In the passage from the beginning of our Parashat quoted above you can also see that the Eternal listens to Isaac’s prayer – Rivka is not being mentioned, even though she is the one who is believed to be infertile. Rabbinical tradition explains this by pointing to the family ties between Rivka and Laban, her brother, whose behavior caused much suffering to her son Jacob. This idea of collective responsibility can seem shocking to us, modern-day Jews. However, some solace can be derived from the fact that Rivka’s prayer was not rejected because of her gender.
Rabbinical interpretations of Isaac’s and Rivka’s troubles with conceiving show us that marital infertility is a very old problem. They seem to suggest that the involvement of both partners and their mutual support can help both of them get through the hard times as they try to conceive their much desired offspring. However, this is not easy, especially when their close ones show no sensitivity by asking questions such as: “So, when are you finally going to have a child?”. This Shabbat I encourage you to reflect on how you could support members of your family or your friends who are struggling – or might be struggling – with infertility. Shabbat Shalom!
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka