Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The blessing of life / Shemot

Torah draws a straight line between the notion of blessing and fertility. God’s first blessing is fertility. On the fifth day, God creates the winged and sea-dwelling creatures and Torah tells us: God blessed them, saying, “Be fertile and increase, fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth” (Genesis 1:22). Then again on the sixth day, after bringing forth humanity: God blessed [humanity] and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth…” (Genesis 1:28).

As the Book of Genesis begins with blessing, it also closes with blessing. In parshat Vayechi, Jacob blesses his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh, and then all his sons, including this dramatic blessing for Joseph, which also speaks of fertility:
The God of your father who helps you,
And Shaddai who blesses you
With blessings of heaven above,
Blessings of the deep that couches below,
Blessing of the breast and womb. (Genesis 49:25)
It’s not surprising then that the Book of Exodus opens with the very same notion. No sooner are we told the names of the sons of Jacob who descended into Egypt than:
But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. (Exodus 1:7)
Torah, which usually uses words sparingly, elaborates on the generativity of the Hebrews, generously supplies four separate words to describe the fertility of the Israelites paru va’yish’r’tzu vayirbu va’ya’atzmu (“fertile and prolific, multiplied and increased”), then adds b’me’od me’od (“very greatly”) and even continues va’timalei ha’aretz otam (“the land was filled with them”). And of course the account that follows tell us that Pharaoh is spooked by the proliferation of Hebrews in his midst and not only enslaves them but launches a genocidal plan, enlisting the midwives Shifrah and Puah to help.

Certainly children are a blessing. And there are certainly other blessings besides. But the emphasis Torah places on procreation -- both human and animal -- led our Sages to what I believe was a bad call in interpreting Genesis 1:28 as prescriptive, rather than description. That is to say: they declared procreation to be a commandment. When God says, “Be fertile and increase,” (Genesis 1:28) this is a description of the very nature of the human species. Like the animals created the fifth day (Genesis 1:22), humanity is self-sustaining. God created once and now people and animals will procreate in order to sustain creation. Just as the animals cannot be commanded to reproduce, it is absurd to think that God commanded each and every human to reproduce. Yet this is precisely how the Rabbis choose to read Genesis 1:28.

Thus we find in the Mishnah:
No man may abstain from keeping the law Be fertile and increase (Genesis 1:28), unless he already has children: according to the School of Shammai, two sons; according to the School of Hillel, a son and a daughter, for it is written, Male and female He created them (Genesis 5:2). (m. Yebamot 6:6)
When the Rabbis say “no man may abstain…” they mean “no Jewish man may abstain.” This points to yet another inconsistency and absurdity, since Genesis 1:28 concerns all humanity, not just Jews. Mishnah assumes the obligation and quickly turns to how many of each sex one is obligated to produce. What does this say to, and about, people who choose not to become parents? What does this say to, and about, people who are infertile? Are they in violation of God’s law? Yet how can they “obey”? But wait, it gets worse. Again from Mishnah Yebamot 6:6 --
If [a man] married a woman and lived with her ten years and she bore no child, it is not permitted him to abstain [from fulfilling this mitzvah]. If he divorced her she may be married to another and the second husband may live with her for ten years. If she had a miscarriage the space [of ten years] is measured from the time of the miscarriage.
This is downright draconian -- harsh and pitiless. Marriage has been reduced to an arrangement to facilitate the man’s presumed obligation to procreate, as derived by the Rabbis from Genesis 1:28. Not surprisingly, there is plenty of pushback as well in the Rabbinic tradition. My favorite example is a midrash in Pesikta de-Rav Kahanah (22:2) that tells the story of a loving couple who come to R. Shimon b. Yochai because although married for a decade, they have no children. The husband invites his wife to take with her whatever she considers most precious from his house when she leaves. From this, we (and R. Shimon) understand the quality of their love. R. Shimon then instructs the couple to spend their last night together just as they spent their first night together, beginning with good food and drink. So they do. Food, drink… What else did they do on their first night together? When the husband finally falls asleep, the wife has her servants transport him to her father’s house. The husband wakes up confused by his surroundings, prompting his wife to explain that she did precisely what he bade her: she took what was most precious to her: him. The midrash makes it clear that this couple did not divorce. Love trumps fertility in importance.
This brings us back to the question: Is blessing primarily about procreation? Is that what Pharaoh sees in the Hebrews that frightens him? But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them (Exodus 1:7). Pharaoh notes their numbers: And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us…” (Exodus 1:9). Pharaoh sees a good deal more than the birthrate of the Hebrews. He sees that this is a people that loves life, that considers life itself the greatest blessing -- in its fullness, robustness, richness. Such people threaten his power, which depends on the diminution and devaluation of human life. In its essence, blessing is not about procreation; it’s about life itself, the greatest and ultimate blessing of God. The trick is not necessarily to engender more lives, but to engender more life.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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