In today’s speak-up, tell-it-like-it-is, immediate response world, the power of what is not said and the context in which messages are delivered can sometimes be overlooked. This is especially true when someone is carrying a silent burden such as infertility. This week’s Torah portion (Toldot) provides a vivid example of how noticing those nuances reveal an incredibly moving story of a personal spiritual awakening.
The Torah portion begins with two brief lines introducing Isaac as Abraham’s son who married Rebecca at age 40 and then says, “And Isaac entreated God for his wife, because she was barren; and God let God’s self be entreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived.”
One little line about Isaac pleading with God to have a child and then the story moves to the topic of those children. But do not blink. That one little line about infertility is a defining moment in Isaac’s spiritual life.
The rabbinic texts explain that Isaac and Rebecca were trying to conceive for 20 years. I struggled with infertility for three interminable years before my first successful pregnancy. 20 years seems unimaginably painful. The other biblical matriarchs Sarah, Rachel and Leah speak about having children. Yet after 20 years, Rebecca is silent and the story gets one line.
The significance of Isaac being the one to speak up cannot be underestimated. The last time the Torah shared something Isaac said was when his father was taking him up a mountain to offer him as a sacrifice. Isaac asks, “Father, here is the firestone and the wood, where is the sheep for offering?” He asks his father and accepts the answer – God will provide. For the rest of the story on the mountaintop, when Abraham raises a knife above his son, when a ram is found in place of Isaac, when they walk back down the mountain, Isaac is silent.
Later Abraham sends a servant to find Rebekah and brings her to Isaac to be his wife. Rebekah is very involved in the process, being active and vocal. Yet Rebekah is chosen without Isaac’s input. The Torah says Isaac takes her as a wife and is comforted after his mother’s death. Yet Isaac remains silent.
In the midrashic text Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, we learn: After twenty childless years, Isaac took Rebekah to Mount Moriah, which is where the Akedat Yitzhak/binding of Isaac took place. There Isaac prayed for Rebekah that she become pregnant, and God answered him.
At the place of the binding of Isaac – “Isaac entreated God for his wife, because she was barren” – and God answered him.
This is Isaac’s story. This is Isaac’s awakening. Perhaps a childhood marked with a near sacrifice on a mountain understandably left Isaac silent and distant from God. Yet facing infertility, Isaac finally is shaken to the point of turning back to God. Years after the binding incident and 20 more years after marriage, Isaac is awakened and goes to the very same spot where he last encountered God. Isaac returns. He enters into relation with God once again to continue the covenant. Isaac petitions God. In turn, Rebekah, his wife, conceives. The story is relative to him. Infertility and turning to God is Isaac’s story.
This is not to say that infertility is punishment for turning away from God. That is a theology I cannot abide. However, this is to say that infertility can isolate someone from God. It can break a person to the core. Infertility can make continuing with the rest of life terribly difficult. It can leave a person isolated from loved ones and community too. Wholeness and healing in the face of infertility can come when we nurture those relationships, spiritual or otherwise.
Infertility caused Isaac to finally enter into relationship with God. Isaac reaches to God. Infertility is a yearning, beyond our own lives, beyond this world. Infertility can leave us utterly helpless. 20 years of helpless. It can also spiritually awaken us and make us act in ways we never thought possible.
That is the context of infertility. That is what is not said.
When Abraham takes Isaac to Mt. Moriah,
Abraham says: God will show us the sheep for offering.
Isaac goes along silently.
Abraham brings Rebekah to Isaac
And Isaac accepts her
And he is comforted.
20 years of infertility
And God waits
And Rebekah is silent.
And Isaac entreated God for his wife, because she was barren; and God let God’s self be entreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived.