Infertility is a common thread in the Torah and in later Biblical books. Three of our four matriarchs struggle to conceive a child, as do women such as Hannah and Manoah’s unnamed wife. All of these stories seem to have happy endings, but Rahel’s case ends in tragedy.
Last week, in Parshat Vayeitzei, Rahel is so distressed by her inability to bear a child (and to compete with her sister Leah’s fecundity) that she says to Ya’akov, “Give me children, or I shall die” (Genesis 30:1). When she does finally conceive and give birth, she seems less than satisfied, naming her first son Yosef, meaning “May the LORD add another son for me” (30:24). This week, in Parshat Vayishlah, Rahel does give birth to another child, but in an eerie fusion of the two above declarations, she dies in childbirth.
In studying these passages from the Torah, I was struck by how flippantly some of our traditional commentaries reacted to this tragic episode. Most troubling to me was a midrash on a verse from Psalms that we recognize from Hallel: “Moshivi ‘akeret habayit, eim habanim semeihah–He sets the childless woman among her household as a happy mother of children” (Psalms 113:9). The midrash applies the verse to seven women, and it seems to work smoothly for six, but less so for Rahel. I think I know why this teaching left me feeling so uncomfortable, not only about the text in question, but also about a current conflict in our society. I’ll explain why on Shabbat morning.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,