“Why Was Rebecca Barren?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we are told that Isaac was 40 years old when he took Rebecca as his wife. Scripture also informs us that Isaac prayed for the benefit of his wife (Genesis 25:21), “Kee ah’kah’rah hee,” because she was barren. G-d responds to Isaac’s prayer, and Rebecca conceives.

Although the biblical text doesn’t indicate as much, the Midrash suggests that Rebecca was barren for 20 years until she conceived.

Rebecca wasn’t the only matriarch who experienced barrenness and difficulty conceiving. Sarah and Rachel were also barren. The commentators wrestle mightily with the issue of the barrenness of the matriarchs, and numerous reasons have been suggested.

1. Some commentators maintain that barrenness proves that the emergence of Israel is a miracle, and that each new generation is a gift from G-d to a mother who could not have given birth naturally. (Cited in the Artscroll Chumash, Stone edition)

2. As Rebecca was leaving her homeland, Aram Naharayim, to meet her betrothed (Isaac), she was given a blessing by the people as they bade her farewell. Genesis 24:60 reads: “Ah’cho’tay’noo aht ha’yee l’al’fay r’va’vah,” Our sister, may you be to the myriads of thousands. Their blessing was, in effect, that Rebecca be the progenitor of many many descendants. In order to prevent people from claiming that “It was our blessing that made Rebecca fruitful. Rebecca owes us for our blessing!” G-d rendered Rebecca barren, so that she would owe the local people nothing. (Cited by May’am Lo’ez)

3. The Talmud, in Yevamot 64a, states that G-d desires the prayer of the righteous. In this way, G-d teaches His people of the great efficacy of prayer. (Cited by Artscroll/Stone and May’am Loez)

4. Barrenness comes to show that it is not on the basis of merit or mazal (luck) that people have children. Children are, rather, a gift from G-d. (Cited by May’am Loez)

5. Rebecca was rendered barren by G-d in order to forestall the exile to Egypt that had been predicted by G-d in His vision to Abraham (Genesis 15:13). Since the exile was set to begin with the birth of Isaac, by postponing the birth, the enslavement in Egypt was significantly shortened, making it more bearable for the Hebrew slaves to endure.

6. The Malbim suggests that childbirth is natural, similar to planting a tree or a bush, but the birth of an exceptional child requires the intervention of G-d, since such a birth is supernatural. Because of their barrenness, the matriarchs, through their constant prayer and pleading, purified the fetus, who emerged exceptional. Since Isaac had been previously guaranteed by G-d that he would have children, the purpose of Isaac’s prayer was to insure that only Rebecca would be the mother of his children.

7. There are those who suggest that Rebecca needed time to clear the wicked home environment of Aram Naharayim out of her system. Consequently, the birth was delayed.

Although, over the past twenty years, remarkable medical progress has been made to assist those with fertility problems, there are still many couples who have not been blessed with children. This issue has been amplified by recent social trends often resulting in delayed marriages. Since conception is more difficult when the couple is older, infertility has become more common. The issue of infertility becomes much more painful for those infertile couples who reside in communities where women have large numbers of children, like the Orthodox and Chasidic communities. The pain that infertile couples experience is extraordinary. It is imperative that those with children be more sensitive when those without children are in their presence.

The searing words that appeared in a recent Bereshith newsletter, written by an anonymous Beginner who has not had the fortune of having children, still ring in my ears. I would like to share just a small part of her plaintive essay, entitled My Personal Elul Miracle, (Bereshith newsletter, Tishrei 5766-October 2005 )

While most of my peers are marrying off their children and reveling in the joys of grandparenthood, I have not yet been blessed with motherhood. At every social function, I start out all smiles and hellos, until the inevitable happens. The group launches into a lively and detailed discussion about their offspring, their offspring’s offspring, playgroups, babysitters, teachers…I continue smiling, with nothing to offer, and usually leave early.

Feeling that others have what I do not, is not a new challenge for me. I spent most of my adult life as a single woman. Every day brought with it reminders that other people had husbands. This feeling that G-d is bent on withholding the good stuff from me was so great, that [even] after a number of years of marriage, I must remind myself every day that I actually have a husband. Once the cognitive dissonance passes, I’m able to savor budding feelings of appreciation. Yes, but other people have children too. Here we go again.

I live next door to a family of 12 children. I hear their playful laughter, their voices soaring in unison around the table every Shabbat. I gaze longingly through my window, as each takes his or her turn sitting proudly atop their Abba’s (father’s) lap or running for a reassuring hug from Ima (mother).

I urge you all to read this deeply moving article in its entirety. While G-d may desire our prayers, for some the answer is no, a very profound and painful no. And while Judaism believes that people without children can indeed become vicarious parents by teaching Torah to others and supporting the study of Torah, this vicarious fulfillment still leaves many empty and broken-hearted.

Let us pray that G-d will heed the prayers of all who cry out to Him, and that perhaps with G-d’s help, medical science will advance to the point where barrenness will become a thing of the past.

May you be blessed.