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Not Sure About Having Kids? The Torah Understands.
Parshat Toldot

Not Sure About Having Kids? The Torah Understands.

Rebecca's story could be read as one about a matriarch who is ambivalent about childbirth.

Did our matriarchs all long to be mothers?

We tend to tell one story about the biblical matriarch, a story in which they long for children for years, praying for pregnancies that will make them into mothers. Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel blur in our minds, united in their barrenness. Their lives are divided into two periods: matriarchs-in-waiting, and matriarchs fulfilled.

But the Torah’s story of these women might be more complicated.

Sarah and Rachel both take active steps to ensure they have children. When Sarah proposes that Avraham take Hagar as a wife it is because she hopes that their child will be hers as well. Later, when she finally gives birth to Isaac, Sarah praises God for her miracle. Rachel, desperate for a child, confronts her husband, telling him that if she does not have children she will die. When she gives birth to Joseph, her first born son, the name she gives him references her desire for more.

Rebecca, the matriarch at the center of this week’s portion, however, never indicates that she has any desire for children at all.

Unlike the barrenness of other matriarchs, which is mentioned at the beginning of extended narratives about their quests for children, Rebecca’s is introduced in the same verse that mentions the solution — not her own prayers, but her husband’s.

Isaac pleaded with the LORD before (lenochach) his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD responded to his plea, and his wife Rebecca conceived. (Genesis: 25-21)

Where was Rebecca as her husband prayed? The midrash in Bereishit Rabbah suggests that Rebecca was in the same room as Isaac, praying the same prayers. In this image of the couple they are united in their desire for children and the pain they feel during the long wait.

Rabbi Tali Adler (Courtesy)

But Rebecca’s silence is conspicuous and forces us to entertain another possibility: Perhaps it is only Isaac who wants children enough to pray for them. This possibility paints a different picture, one in which Isaac prays fervently in one corner of a room while Rebbeca, in another corner, remains silent — maybe simply ignoring his prayers, or maybe going so far as to hope that his prayers will be ignored.

The possibility of Rebecca’s ambivalence is reinforced in the next verse:

But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” (Genesis 25:22)

Rebecca’s reaction to her pregnancy is a direct contrast to Rachel’s later reaction to her inability to become pregnant. Whereas Rachel says she will die if she does not have children, Rebecca, once she begins to experience the pregnancy physically, despairs. It is only when Rebecca receives the word of God assuring her that she has a role as the mother of two great nations that Rebecca seems to reconcile herself to motherhood.

There are two ways to understand this version of Rebecca’s story. The first, and more tragic, is of a woman who never wanted to be a mother and had that role forced upon her by other people’s needs and expectations. This Rebecca is a reminder of the heartbreak that ensues when childbearing is mandated by a society unable to see individuals whose dreams may be different than those others have for them.

But there is a second, more complicated version of Rebecca’s story, one that is less tragic but perhaps equally uncomfortable. In this version Rebecca is not against being a mother, but is ambivalent about it. Instead of hoping that Isaac’s prayers will go unanswered, she may remain silent because she is simply unsure of what she wants. This Rebecca may have experienced joy and fear during her pregnancy. This Rebecca may, like so many mothers, have embraced her children in love while mourning the ways that their existence would change her life.

Rebecca may, like so many mothers, have embraced her children in love while mourning the ways that their existence would change her life.

For many people, the journey towards parenthood is ambivalent: wanting coupled with fear, days of longing for pregnancy followed by extended periods of hoping for just a little while longer before it comes. Sometimes even those who have previously identified with Rachel and Sarah become, when faced with pregnancy, ambivalent Rebeccas.

In offering Rebecca’s journey, the Torah may be offering an imperative: Do not assume you know how others feel about their journeys to parenthood. Make space for parents to share their fears just as they share their joy.

And for those struggling with their ambivalence in silence: Know that Rebecca is our matriarch as well.

Rabbi Tali Adler teaches at Yeshivat Hadar. 

Candlelighting, Readings

Friday, Nov. 5, 2021
Kislev 1, 5782

Light candles at 5:29 p.m.


Torah Reading: Toldot: Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Haftarah: Malachi 1:1 – 2:7
Shabbat ends 6:28 p.m.

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