One of the most prevalent motifs throughout the Torah is that of the barren woman. The Torah is filled with female characters struggling to conceive. We know their names. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Hannah are just a few. When we think about infertility in the Bible, oddly it seems like a women’s problem. Though each of these women had husbands, the pain of childlessness fell mainly on their shoulders.
In life, however, men are not immune from the pain of infertility. When a family struggles to have a child, the pain strikes both members of a couple. This week’s portion, Parashat Toldot, is important because it is the one few instances of infertility where where the burden does not fall squarely on the wife and because of this, Isaac can become an important model for the unique pain that a husband feels when struggling with the burden of infertility.
The Bible pays little lip service to Isaac and Rebecca’s struggle to conceive. In one short sentence our Torah tells the whole saga of their infertility:
Isaac prayed to God on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. God answered his prayer, and his wife Rebecca became pregnant (Genesis 25:21).
However, like most stories in our tradition, our ancient Rabbis took this brief account and added a world of meaning. They imagine the in-between, the months and years of trying to conceive and being unable. While these stories are a gift, they sometimes run the risk of condemning the victim; when they search for the backstory to our ancestor’s infertility, our Rabbis all too often look to assign blame.
While some ancient commentators saddle Rebecca with the burden of childlessness - in one imaginative account she was born without a womb and the miracle of her pregnancy was that God provided her with one (Gen. Rabbah 63:5) - others took a more radical step and put the blame on Isaac.
According to classical Jewish law, a husband who is married to a women for more than ten years without having children is permitted to divorce her and find another wife who can bear him children. In their opinion, bearing children is just too important to wait around for a miracle. Isaac’s father Abraham does this when he seeks out Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar after an unsuccessful decade. Yet according to tradition, Isaac was married to Rebecca for twenty years before he made his plea to God. Why wait around? Sadly the answer was not love.
According to rabbinic tradition, Isaac was infertile. And he knew this. Knowing that moving on to a new wife would not bring him a child, he stuck around, hoping for a miracle (Talmud, Yevamot 64a). Through his ordeal, Isaac suffered greatly. His twenty years of infertility brought with it shame, anger, and humiliation.
Foremost, Isaac suffered physical shame. There is an important teaching in the Talmud that says that when a husband and wife are seeking divorce and they both blame the other for their infertility, we listen to the wife because “she knows with certainty whether [his seed] shoots like an arrow” (Talmud, Yevamot 65a). The reason we trust the wife is because in ancient days our rabbis had no conception of morphology and swimming speed. They would have never imagined the idea of sperm, let alone the fact that millions of them might be missing heads or tails. Instead, they noticed the obvious cases of infertility. Isaac would have known every time he tried for a child that his body was not cooperating. The most manly of acts had failed him. His body was a source of shame. Because male infertility was only diagnosed in its most extreme forms, each moment of trying became an emasculating experience.
Yet, perhaps more than this was the distance that was created between Isaac and his wife Rebecca. The role of children in ancient days was to be a “staff for [their mother’s] hand and a hoe for her burial” (Talmud, Yevamot 65b). In other word, Rebecca, like many mothers, yearned for children to support her when she was old and mourn for her when she died. While Isaac could do a lot of Rebecca, he as an older figure who would pass on before her, could not do these things for his beloved wife. Every month that passed, as Isaac and Rebecca aged, must have reminded them of this reality.
Their distance would come to a head in the moment of Isaac’s prayer to God. While the text literally reads, “Isaac prayed to God on behalf of his wife” our Rabbis read the word “l’nokach” not as “on behalf of” but rather “opposite.” As Rashi explains:
This one (Isaac) was standing in this corner and praying, and that one (Rebecca) was standing in that corner and praying.
Infertility had created a rift between them. At the moment when they should have been supporting one another, they were distant, standing as far apart as possible, pleading in their loneliness for God to heal their bodies and hopefully their marriage as well.
However, perhaps of all the struggles of Isaac’s infertility, it would be his anger at God and God’s divine injustice that would break our commentators hearts. It was taught in the Talmud, “Why were our forefathers infertile? Because the Holy One, Blessed be He, craves the prayers of the righteous” (Talmud, Yevamot 64a). Reflecting on this teaching many generations later, the 20th century scholar Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler in his work Michtav MeEliyahu explained that God craved the brokenhearted yearnings of Isaac. Isaac’s simple everyday prayers, Dessler continues, could not have solved God’s need for connection. Isaac had to reach out to God in real pain for God to feel needed. And it had to be Isaac. No one’s pain was more important than a beloved forefather.
One can imagine a broken and exacerbated Isaac calling out from the depths to God, wondering how much louder he needed to cry before God would pay him any mind. Isaac’s infertility, like all our infertility felt like an injustice. Generations later, the pain of his plea would be echoed in the quip of Tevye the Milkman in Fiddler on the Roof, “I know, I know, we are the chosen people. But once in a while can't you choose somebody else?”
Infertility is tragic to whoever it impacts and though each person’s experience is different, Isaac’s struggle reminds us to be extra mindful of three particularly difficult aspects of barrenness. Each time we read his story, we are challenged to ask: How might we support someone dealing with the shame of a body that does not work? How can we support those we love as they deal with the stresses on marriage and intimacy that come with infertility? What do we do about the injustice of it and how can we deal with a person’s spiritual pain?
The answers are not easy, but asking the right question is a good place to start.