A Difficult Pregnancy - A Difficult Motherhood

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley





Parashat Toledot



A Difficult Pregnancy - A Difficult Motherhood


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



With the death and burial Avraham Avinu described at the end of last week’s parsha, we expect that the Torah will now concentrate on Yitzchak.  Instead, the Torah details how fruitful Yishmael has become; twelve children come effortlessly (as for Nachor before him), and each one is mentioned by name and is labeled “a prince.”  Only with Yishmael’s death does the spotlight turn to Yitzchak.  And the difference between the two sons could not be greater:


19 And these are the generations of Yitzchak, Abraham's son; Abraham begot Yitzchak. 20 And Yitzchak was forty years old when he took Rivka, the daughter of Betuel the Aramean of Paddan-Aram, the sister of Lavan the Aramean, to be his wife.


Instead of the names of Yitzchak’s children, the Torah informs us (twice in the first verse!) about Yitzchak’s father.  In no other place in the Tanakh does an account of “generations” begin with a description of how the individual “was generated.” 


This anomaly led the commentators to attempt to explain the apparent redundancy.  Rashi suggests that Hashem caused Yitzchak’s features to change so that he resembled Avraham, as scoffers were suggesting that Avimelech had impregnated Sarah while she was held captive in Gerar.  The Ramban and others propose that the extra wording was meant to highlight Yitzchak’s role as the most important of Avraham’s children.  However, similar wording is lacking when we study how the Torah describes the generations of Esav and Yaakov. 


Finally, the Ibn Ezra maintains that the wording is meant to remind the reader that Avraham was the one who raised Yitzchak.  Apparently, the most salient fact for us is that Yitzchak is Avraham’s son.  This point is hammered home as we see Yitzchak retrace his father’s footsteps – to Gerar, where Rivka will be in danger like Sara before her, to the re-digging of the wells Avraham had dug, to coping with a spouse’s inability to conceive. 


More importantly, we are reminded that Yitzchak is the first son to be born into a family committed to Hashem in a covenant.  This agreement transforms the natural relationship that exists between father and son into a vehicle for the teaching of holiness, righteousness, and justice (Bereishit 18:19).  Avraham chose this relationship; Yitzchak did not.  The choice to serve Hashem was made for him by Avraham.   Now, we wonder, will Yitzchak be as successful in transmitting those values to his children?  Every son in the covenant will be faced with this question.



Fortunately, this is not a challenge that Yitzchak must face alone.  Beside him stands Rivka, she of the unflattering pedigree.  Both her father and brother are pointedly referred to as Arameans.  However, her genealogy is misleading; we witnessed her goodness in action last week when she ran to water a stranger and his camels.  Her actions were selfless, unlike those of her brother Lavan, who ran only upon sight of the riches that adorned his sister.  She is indeed Avraham’s replacement. Like him, she left her family and country behind, abandoning the idols of her people for the one God of Yitzchak.


And yet, for twenty years, the expected progeny do not come.  Not only may Yitzchak not be able to transmit the values that he received from his father to his children, he may not have any children at all!  Unlike his father (and later his son), however, Yitzchak does not turn to a concubine to provide the necessary progeny.  Instead, he turns directly to Hashem:


 21 And Yitzchak entreated Hashem for his wife, because she was barren; and Hashem let Himself be entreated of him, and Rivka his wife conceived.


Hashem answers Yitzchak immediately; indeed, it appears that good fortune and Divine blessing follow Yitzchak whenever he faces obstacles and challenges. 


Understandably, after two decades of infertility and frustration and with their conception resulting from prayer, the children will be viewed as nothing less then Divine gifts.  But the pregnancy faces the unexpected as well:


22 And the children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it be so, wherefore do I live?” And she went to inquire of Hashem.


Rivka’s question confuses the reader.  Why the sudden existential doubts?  Are pregnancies supposed to be easy?  That her confusion was that of a new mother-to-be is in fact suggested by the Rashbam, the pashtan par excellence, who understands her travails as the normal behavior of embryos in the womb and the extra pains resulting from her carrying twins.  The Seforno almost whimsically suggests that her utterance was based on the blessing that she received from her family upon leaving Aram – “May you be the mother of tens of thousands!”  We can almost hear her exclaim, “With pains like these - no thanks!”  Rashi brings a midrashic answer to explain the source of Rivka’s confusion:  “Whenever she would pass by the yeshiva of Shem and Ever, Yaakov would struggle, attempting to go towards it; and whenever she passed a house of idol worship, Esav would struggle, attempting to go towards it.” 


We may also suggest a simpler understanding. If Rivka is indeed destined to finally produce an heir, someone to transmit values and teachings to, why two children?  Are they to give to both, or just to one?  And if so, to whom?  To her questions, Hashem answers:


23 And Hashem said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people, ve-rav ya’avod tza’ir, and the elder shall serve the younger [or – the elder, the younger shall serve].


To a very personal question, Hashem provides a rather political response.  These are not two children - they are two distinct nations, two separate peoples.  Moreover, these two peoples will struggle with one another.  One will lead, the other will serve.  As Rashi points out, they will never be strong at the same time – one’s rise inevitably will lead to the other’s fall.  But only one will belong to the path blazed by Avraham. 


But Hashem does not identify which line that will be, which son will prevail.  To the Ibn Ezra and the Rashbam, it is clear that the elder son will serve the younger.  The Rashbam adds that this is the reason that Rivka favored Yaakov, for Hashem had told her so.  Ibn Caspi, the Redak, and the Abrabanel, however, all point out that the Hebrew is ambiguous, missing the grammatical construct “et” to indicate who shall serve whom (ve-rav ya’avod et ha-tza’ir).  They suggest that the purpose of the ambiguity is to reflect the varying rise and fall of the children’s (and their descendants’) fortunes throughout history. 


Perhaps we can suggest a different approach.  Each child may contain within him the seeds of greatness.  Natural birth order – the rule of primogeniture - does not matter in the Torah’s thought.  Nothing opposes the traditional rule of the elder, with its accompanying inequality, more then twins – two equals at birth.   If Rivka is looking for a natural answer to her concerns, she is told that those factors are not to be considered when discussing the transmission of values or what the future may hold.  The choices that the children will make are what will decide their fate.  Unlike Yitzchak, who can and will be tempted by immediate concerns, Rivka will approach childbirth with a long-term view, combining love for the present with concern for the future.  As such, Hashem’s ambiguous and elliptical answer perfectly conveys to Rivka what being a mother in Israel means.