Yossi Feintuch: Abraham, Jacob and Elkanah — husbands who failed to respond to their wives' infertility

[Picture: Nor did Abra(ha)m make any effort otherwise to uplift Sarai’s crestfallen spirit... freebibleimages]

[Picture: Nor did Abra(ha)m make any effort otherwise to uplift Sarai’s crestfallen spirit... freebibleimages]

[For articles on the “Sabbath of Vayetze" in Hebrew, click here]

Updated on December 2, 2022

Rabbi Dr. Yossi Feintuch was born in Afula and holds a Ph.D. in American history from Emory University in Atlanta. He taught American history at Ben-Gurion University. Author of the book US Policy on Jerusalem. He is the rabbi of Congregation Shalom Bayit in Bend, Oregon.

Rabbi Dr. Yossi Feintuch was born in Afula and holds a Ph.D. in American history from Emory University in Atlanta. He taught American history at Ben-Gurion University.

Author of the book US Policy on Jerusalem.

He is the rabbi of Congregation Shalom Bayit in Bend, Oregon.

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Whilst Sarah was well past her biological reproductive years, Abra(ha)m was resigned to having his loyal servant, Eliezer, as his heir.  Yet, Abra(ha)m did not respond, let alone object to Sarai’s expressed conviction that her inability to give birth reflected God’s will; in his silence Abra(ha)m effectively accepted Sarai’s belief that God was behind her inability to conceive. Nonetheless, Abra(ha)m did not petition God in prayer to allow them to have a child, even as he ‘’prayed to God’’ to heal and restore Avimelech, king of Grar, his wife, and his female slaves to birthability so they could bear children again, after Sarah was taken by Avimelech to be his wife but was returned subsequently to Abraham (Genesis 20: 17-18). Nor did Abra(ha)m make any effort otherwise to uplift Sarai’s crestfallen spirit.

[Picture: Nor did Abra(ha)m make any effort otherwise to uplift Sarai’s crestfallen spirit... freebibleimages]

[Picture: Nor did Abra(ha)m make any effort otherwise to uplift Sarai’s crestfallen spirit... freebibleimages]

It was Sarai’s own idea that Abra(ha)m consort with Hagar, Sarai’s handmaid, so she would give birth to his heir .  But once Hagar  quickly became pregnant she lost her respect for Sarai, whilst Abra(ha)m was either indifferent or unaware of Hagar’s diminished respect for her mistress, his wife, Sarai, which worsened Sarai's emotional hurt. Understandably, Sarai accused her husband for ‘’the wrong’’ that Hagar did to her. A more sensitive husband would have noticed Hagar's disposition and told her to knock it off.

Isaac and Rebecca were the second generation of Hebrews to struggle with infertility that lasted two decades. Though Isaac did not discuss the matter with his wife, let alone offer words of hope, he ’’pleaded (profusely) with the Eternal on behalf of his wife, for she was barren, and the Eternal acceded to his entreaty.’’

But in this weekly Torah portion, Va-Yestse, Jacob was callous in his response to his beloved wife, Rachel, when she implored him: ‘’Come-now, (give) me children! If not, I will die!’’ (Genesis 30:1). Rather than express his undiminished love for her, even when she had not (yet) borne a child to Jacob, while Leah did so several times, Jacob retorted angrily, miffed by Rachel’s emotional request.

[Picture: Rather than express his undiminished love for her, even when she had not (yet) borne a child to Jacob, while Leah did so several times, Jacob retorted angrily, miffed by Rachel’s emotional request... Free Image - CC0 Creative Commons - Designed and Uploaded by subhamshome to Pixabay]

[Picture: Rather than express his undiminished love for her, even when she had not (yet) borne a child to Jacob, while Leah did so several times, Jacob retorted angrily, miffed by Rachel’s emotional request... Free Image - CC0 Creative Commons - Designed and Uploaded by subhamshome to Pixabay]

And he hastily said, without giving himself a pause to reflect on what his blurted words might do to Rachel: ‘’Am I in place of God, who has denied you fruit of the body?’’ (30:2). Continuing this line of focusing on what was wrong with Rachel, rather than with himself, he told her that it was not in his power to give or deny her children, so why does she complain to him? Is it my fault that you have not conceived yet? Why, it is God ‘’who has withheld from you fruit of the womb.’’ Jacob’s barbed words meant in effect to ‘’remind’’ Rachel that it was not he who was without a child but she.  And that he, Jacob, did not deliberately prevent her from conceiving in case that Rachel suspected it to be the case. (Rachel obtained some of Leah’s dudaim, or mandrakes, an aphrodisiac fruit.  Conceivably, they were meant for Jacob’s usage too.)

And yet, couldn’t Jacob listen to the hidden message of his words that insinuated that God withheld pregnancy from Rachel because of some iniquity in her, so his would-be petitionary prayer could not counteract God’s stand? Nachmanides comments that Jacob knew that he did not have ‘’the power to coerce God, as it were, to respond to his wish’’, even if conveyed by praying on behalf of Rachel.  And as far as Rachel’s reminding him impliedly that his father Isaac prayed for a child, he did so because he did not have another child from another wife. But he, Jacob, did… – another inner message contained in Jacob’s answer that Rachel must have heard.

[Picture: couldn’t Jacob listen to the hidden message of his words that insinuated that God withheld pregnancy from Rachel because of some iniquity in her, so his would-be petitionary prayer could not counteract God’s stand? freebibleimages]

[Picture: couldn’t Jacob listen to the hidden message of his words that insinuated that God withheld pregnancy from Rachel because of some iniquity in her, so his would-be petitionary prayer could not counteract God’s stand? freebibleimages]

Jacob’s apologists among the commentators justify his show of anger, which was not in itself a stranger to him, while ignoring the fact that the Mishna and Talmud urge folks to distance themselves from anger – one of Judaism’s most dreadful behaviors that is akin to the cardinal sin of idolatry. Anger, the Rabbis teach, demotes a great person from his greatness and separates a sage from his sagity. According to those who understand and justify Jacob’s intense anger at Rachel, he was right to be incensed by Rachel’s unwarranted accusation; afterall, didn’t he labor 14 years for her and loved her wholeheartedly, only to be accused by her for withholding her from becoming pregnant? (One can be provoked to anger, but it doesn’t mean that he ought to act on it and display it.)

Indeed, should a woman’s worth be exclusively dependent on motherhood? Couldn’t a woman be learned, righteous, a business success even without a child? Jacob’s fury, then, was understandable, so the apologist commentators. Moreover, it was expressed in order to help her, she who’s beset by deep jealousy of her sister Leah. Why, his anger would drive her to herself by praying to God without expecting another to do so for her … Hence, the apologists argue that Jacob’s anger made Rachel make a move by inviting Jacob to consort with Bil’hah, her handmaid; once the latter gave birth to Dan, whom Rachel named, she felt that God has ‘’heard my voice and has given me a son’’.  And then God ‘’opened her [own] womb. She conceived and bore a son [Joseph], and said, ‘God has taken away my disgrace’ ’’. Jacob’s anger, then, generated at the end Rachel’s ultimate goal, motherhood.

[Picture: Rachel Rachel was beset by deep jealousy of her sister Leah... freebibleimages]

[Picture: Rachel Rachel was beset by deep jealousy of her sister Leah... freebibleimages]

But what Jacob’s abrupt and unfeeling answer to Rachel betrayed was not only the theological message that it is all from Heaven, even as the Jerusalem Talmud opines that posterity (longevity and prosperity too) was a matter of luck, and not a reflection of God’s will. Indeed, how did Jacob know that God withheld pregnancy from Rachel? Even if that was the case, couldn’t Jacob offer solace, express hope, or a loving prayer? Afterall, he did not need children from Rachel and might have even feared that her beauty would be marred by pregnancy and child-rearing. Couldn’t Jacob suss out that by linking directly between God’s will and Rachel’s inability to conceive he might even delay her conversion to full monotheism and linger her attachment to her father’s ‘’gods’’, the idols that she stole from him, so they might do for her what God would not?

Midrash Bereshit Raba (71) has God taking Jacob to task for his insensitivity to Rachel: ‘’Is this the way to answer she who’s aggrieved? By your life, your children (born by your other wives) are destined to stand humbly before her son Joseph!’’

In short, Jacob sinned in his anger failing to look into Rachel’s heart. Jacob’s words might have impacted Rachel less severely if in lieu of his fury he spoke them gingerly, with sensitivity and tenderness, while attempting earnestly to share and internalize her big pain by stressing his sense of partnership with her through hope and faith. Just by imparting to Rachel that he, Jacob, wanted to be a part of the solution, not of the problem, would have sent the message that he too was in the same boat with her and shared her distress. Instead, Jacob parted ways with Rachel when telling her that the problem was hers, not his.

[Picture: Jacob sinned in his anger failing to look into Rachel’s heart... freebibleimages]

Elkanah is another Israelite man who lacked sensitivity in speaking to his wife, Hannah, when she continuously agonized over her childlessness and being dissed heartlessly by her co-wife, Peninah. Though Elkanah clearly favored Hannah over Peninah, Hannah’s agony was further exacerbated by the common belief that the All-compassionate One ‘’closed her womb’’. Sharing her emotional open wound Elkanah said to Hannah at the peak of her distress: ‘’Why are you crying, and why won’t you eat, and why is it that your heart is so embittered; am I not better to you than having ten sons?’’ (1 S 1:8) – the Midrash notes that it was a reference to the ten sons born to him by his second wife. Or in other words, I love you, Hannah, more than the ten sons born to me by Peninah.

Needless to say, these words were not helpful and Hannah continued to wallow in aggravation and mental anguish, even crying copiously.  Whilst Elkana meant to appease his beloved Hannah he denied her reason to feel as she did. In fact, the more he evinced his love for Hannah the more she wanted to bear children for him. Elkanah’s sincere and loving attempt, then, to uplift Hannah’s sunken spirit backfired as he failed to understand the extent of her grief. Nor did Elkanah offer to pray or convey hope and faith. He rather resigned himself to the reality that Hannah would not bear a child and he offered his own love – that was already demonstrated – in lieu of entertaining the hope that the future is still pregnant with potential.

In conclusion, Abraham, Jacob and Elkana failed in various degrees to understand the agony that their respective wives endured due to their bareness, or to offer prayer of hope and faith, even as all three resigned themselves to the status quo, while not attempting to debunk the idea that their wives’ infertility expressed God’s will.

 

מצאת טעות בכתבה? הבחנת בהפרה של זכויות יוצרים? נתקלת בדבר מה שאיננו ראוי? אנא, דווח לנו!

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Yossi Feintuch: Abraham, Jacob and Elkanah — husbands who failed to respond to their wives' infertility

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