Toldot 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

The Torah portion Toldot is really the only one in which Yitzhak and Rivka are the main characters; it begins with the birth of Yaakov and Esav, who are portrayed as struggling even in the womb. The twins have several tragic encounters in this portion: Yaakov convinces Esav (the older son) to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentils, and later, after the family has travelled to Gerar and dealt with some property problems left over from Avraham, Yaakov dresses up like his brother in order to receive the better blessing from their old and blind father. Fearing for his life, Rivka sends Yaakov off to find a wife from among her clan, thus setting up the next several parshiot, which tell of Yaakov’s adventures and spiritual growth.

“Yitzhak pleaded with God on behalf of [literally, “opposite”] his wife, for she was infertile. God granted the plea for him, and his wife Rivka conceived.”
(Genesis 25:21)


This is not the first time the Torah presents us with a Matriarch who cannot bear children- this theme was a central part of Sarah’s story, and will appear again with Rachel. Perhaps this reflects a common theme among myths and legends: the birth of great heros must itself be a dramatic story. A more theological perspective might be that the Torah portrays the birth of some central characters as miracles- the more miraculous the birth, the more we the readers realize it is God upon whom the survival and continuity of the Jewish people and its unique blessing depends.

Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, often known as Rabbenu Bachya [“our rabbi Bachya,” who lived in Spain, and died around 1340), asks a subtle question about our verse: why does the Torah mention Yitzhak’s plea to God before telling us what the problem was? In other words, it would seem normal to tell us about a problem (in this case, their inability to have a child), and then tell us what was done about it (in this case, pray intensely.)

Basing himself on an earlier midrash (from the fourth-century collection called Tanchuma), Rabbenu Bachya says that the reason that all the matriarchs had difficulty conceiving is because God wanted their prayers! In this midrash, God wants the prayers of outstanding individuals, and if they had everything they wanted with no struggle, they wouldn’t pray at all. Thus, according to Rabbenu Bachya’s reading, the verse makes sense, because the infertility isn’t the cause of the praying, the praying (or possible lack thereof) is the cause of the infertility! God wanted Rivka and Yitzhak to pray and yearn, and so prevented them from conceiving.

Now, this is a dramatic but problematic interpretation, to say the least. A minor difficulty is that the text here only tells about Yitzhak’s prayer, but the midrash talks about the Matriarch’s prayer; I suppose we can assume that both Yitzhak and Rivka prayed. In fact, Rashi interprets “opposite” in just this way, imagining Yitzhak and Rivka standing in opposite corners of a room, praying together.

From a theological perspective, this midrash gives us even more difficulties. God seems cruel and capricious, putting people in heartbreaking situations just to fulfill God’s own desire- how could a loving God be so selfish? Especially now, when infertility has been recognized as one of the most agonizing and heartbreaking experiences a couple can go through, to say that God deliberately causes such pain is incompatible with our notion of Divine compassion. Furthermore, are we then to say that people who pray intensely, but who don’t get their prayer answered, are not righteous and outstanding individuals? In that case, people would have only themselves to blame for their problems. It may be more realistic and compassionate to recognize that the world works according to certain natural rules, and bad things happen to some wonderful people through no fault of their own. Finally, our midrash could imply that God only wants certain people’s prayers, and not everybody’s! That would go against our deepest intuition that God is the God of all humankind, and that each person is created in the Divine Image.

Yet perhaps if we apply Rabbenu Bachya’s midrash to the realm of personality, rather than biology, there is an insight to be gleaned. First, I think Rabbenu Bachya is correct in reminding us of a common human trait: we often take our good fortune for granted, and only seek a relationship with the Holy One in troubled times. As the old saying goes, “there are no atheists in foxholes-” but when everything is going great, it’s easy to let the practice of gratitude slip away. Like exercise, music, or art, a rich spiritual life requires dedication and discipline; my personal experience has been that it is much easier to find a place of peace in my soul during bad times if I’ve been keeping up spiritual practices during the good times too.

On a more metaphorical note, perhaps we can reinterpret the interpretation, by understanding “barrenness” to refer not to the body, but to the soul. There are times in every person’s life when we feel unproductive, stuck, burnt-out, used-up, stressed, bummed, depressed, you name it. Rabbenu Bachya’s midrash says that God wants the prayers of the Matriarchs, who could not conceive- perhaps implying that when we reach those times of inner barrenness, one proper response is to reach out to the Source of all Life. Sometimes prayer and meditation enable us to “conceive” of things that we might not be able to imagine when we’re stuck in our rut, even if only by widening our perspectives beyond the immediate moment, to a broader view of life and its potential. For example, in our verse, note that Yitzhak prays not that he himself might have a son, but he prays on behalf of Rivka- one might imagine that his compassion and connection to another grew out of seeking spiritual solace and meaning in the midst of his family problems.

Returning to our original problem, Rabbenu Bachya says that the Torah puts Yitzhak’s prayer first, before the specific problem, because it’s a general principle that one deals with the “main thing” [ikar] before incidental things [tafel]. The incidental thing is the crisis of the day, as serious and heartbreaking as it may be. The main thing is how we respond to life’s inevitable difficulties: with prayer or with despair? With faith or with fear? Seeking to learn from our struggles, or letting pain turn us bitter and narrow?

Perhaps God wants our prayers not because God needs them, but because we need them.

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