Parshat Lech Lecha & Rachel Imenu’s Yahrzeit
Rachel: A role model for fertility challenged women
This week we will be commemorating Rachel, our foremother’s yahrzeit. Out of all of the forefathers and foremothers, Rachel’s yahrzeit is the only one officially commemorated by the Jewish community.
On Rachel’s yahrzeit, men and women from all over Israel come to Kever Rachel, Rachel’s Tomb to pray. Many women who are fertility challenged specifically come to Kever Rachel to pray for a child.
Each of our foremothers had a difficult time conceiving but Rachel’s story specifically stands out.
When Leah was able to conceive, she gave birth to child after child while Rachel remained childless. This was a very difficult time for Rachel and she did not hide her emotions.
In Breisheet 30:1 we read: “Rachel saw that she was not bearing children to Yaakov. Rachel became jealous of her sister, and she said to Yaakov, “Give me children; if not I am considered dead.”
Rachel was jealous, she felt worthless, she was open with her husband and told him exactly how she felt.
Yaakov’s answer which does not seem sympathetic is found in sentence 2, “Yaakov became very angry with Rachel and he said, ‘Am I in God’s place? It is He who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb.’”
Rachel did not accept this unsympathetic answer. Rather than get into an argument, she took action.
Where did Rachel gain inspiration from? She remembered that Sarah, Yaakov’s grandmother also had trouble getting pregnant as we read in Parshat Lech Lecha, Breisheet 16:1: “Avram’s wife Sarai had not borne him children. She had an Egyptian handmaid whose name was Hagar. Sarai said to Avram: “See now, God has restrained me from having children; pray, come to my handmaid perhaps I will be built up through her (oolai ibaneh mimenah)…”
Rachel told Yaakov in Breisheet 30:3, “Here is my handmaid, Bilha, consummate a marriage with her. Let her give birth upon my knees, and I too will have a son through her (v’ibaneh gam anochi mimenah).”
Even though it didn’t work out well with Hagar (Yishmael did not end up being Sarah’s surrogate son as she was hoping), since Sarah was so selfless, in the end she gave birth to Yitzchak, a child of her own. According to Rashi, Rachel was willing to do whatever was necessary to try to have a child including taking a chance of engaging a surrogate mother hoping that if it didn’t work out well, God may still reward her with a child.
In Rachel’s case, Bilha served as a surrogate mother and Rachel was blessed with Bilha’s children being considered as her own. In Sentence 6, “Rachel said, ‘God has judged me. He also heard my voice and has given me a son.’ She therefore named him Don (judge).” When Bilha gave birth to a second son, in sentence 8, Rachel named him Naftali which according to Rashi means “my prayer was accepted.”
Rachel is happy with her two “surrogate” children yet she still does not give up on trying for a child of her own. When she saw that Reuven had “doodaim” a type of flower often translated as mandrakes or jasmine, thought to have fertility powers, she was willing to trade a night with her husband.
After Leah had a few more children, Rachel finally got pregnant as it says in Breisheet 30:22-24, “God remembered Rachel and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and gave birth to a son. She said, ‘God has removed my shame.’ She named him Yosef, saying, ‘May God add (yosef) to me another son.’”
Rachel’s faith was evident. Although we didn’t hear her prayer, we see that God listened. She was open about feeling shame in being unable to conceive. Instead of being satisfied with the fact that she finally gave birth, she didn’t waste any time and prayed for another child. Rashi points out that prophetically Rachel knew that Yaakov would have twelve tribes and she wanted to make sure that the last tribe would also come from her.
We have seen so many reasons why women who are fertility challenged can relate to Rachel. A woman who is not afraid to show her feelings, to take the initiative, to pray, to arrange for a surrogate mother to use fertility treatments and to never give up hope.
Today, we are living in a very different world. We have many innovations that couples who are fertility challenged can now take advantage of. Yet some things are still the same. The pain that a woman may be feeling, the need for a good sympathetic and listening ear, a space where she can be comfortable sharing her feelings, the desire to pray but not knowing what to say or where to start are all as important today as they were in the days of our foremothers.
At Keren Gefen’s Chavruta Fertility Workshop in Jerusalem, women can find a community of participants who can gain inspiration from the experiences of our foremothers by studying the Biblical texts, commentaries and Midrash as well as discover prayer from a new point of view through the exposure to techinot (special prayers that have been recited by women on different occasions throughout the generations) and tap in to their creative side by writing their own prayers and role playing through the method of Bibliodrama.