The famed Torah scholar Beruria was once challenged by a heretic, who sought to undermine her steadfast allegiance to the Tradition (B. Berachot 10a).
Citing the biblical verse which opens this week's haftara (additional portion read from the Prophets on Shabbat and Festivals following the reading of the Torah) - "Sing out, O barren one who has not given birth" (Isaiah 54:1), he queried: "Surely barrenness is a cause for sadness, not for rejoicing! Why does the prophet describe the childless woman as joyfully singing out?"
Beruria swiftly responded: "Fool! Go down to the end of the verse where it is written 'for the children of the desolate one - referring to Jerusalem - are more numerous than the children of the espoused one - referring to the powerful Edomites.'" Clearly the so-called "barren one" will not remain childless and hence has good cause for singing.
Beruria's retort to the non-believer contained a hint of criticism, for in instructing him to continue to the end of the biblical verse, she employed the word shephil, which also carries the connotation of lowering oneself from haughtiness. Beruria may not only have been directing the heretic to go down to the end of the verse, but she was exhorting this troublemaker to subordinate himself to the hoary words of the prophet.
Beruria, however, was not finished, for she felt that the verse - or more accurately - the heretic, still deserved more attention: "If Jerusalem is to be filled with children, why then is she described at the beginning of the verse as being barren?" Without hesitating, Beruria offered a stinging answer, divorced from the biblical context: "Let the Congregation of Israel rejoice, for she is like a barren woman in that she has not given birth to children destined for Gehenna like you!" Indeed, Jerusalem is barren, but only from uncouth progeny like you, and that is certainly a cause for joy.
The central issue in this exchange - the barren woman eventually bearing children - is a common biblical motif. Three of the four mothers - Sarah, Rivka and Rachel - were barren (Genesis 11:30; 16:1-2; 25:21; 29:31; 20:1-2, 22-24), and a close reading of the text suggests that even Leah was at first unable to bear children. Other biblical heroines, such as the mother of Samson (Judges 13:2-3) and Hannah the mother of Samuel (I Samuel 1:2, 5-6), were also barren until God granted them offspring. How are we to understand this unnatural plethora of barrenness among women of the Bible?
The sages cite God's deep-seated desire for the prayers of such righteous women as a possible reason for biblical barrenness: Before granting the gift of children, God sought the sincere prayers of these virtuous women (Bereshit Rabba 45:4 and parallels). A careful reading of this rabbinic passage reveals that the Almighty is not pining for introspective prayer or earnest supplications. The sages tell us that God craves the siha (speech, discourse) of these heroines.
This term implies a less formal, less structured, less ritual interaction that carries a strong personal element. Thus our sages may be suggesting that the Almighty is providing an opportunity for cultivating a relationship. God may be saying: First we should develop our personal relationship; after that has been secured, we can move to the miracle and challenge of raising a new generation.
This approach presents an appealing paradigm for developing relationships - both interpersonal relationships and relationships with God. A relationship should be cultivated, strengthened and shored up, before it is expected to bear fruits.
Though we may see the wisdom in this lesson, the means with which it is presented - heartbreaking barrenness - is troubling: Surely there are other ways to develop relationships, without artificially making women barren and causing so much distress?!
One commentator suggests that the barrenness of the four mothers was natural (Radak, Provence, 12th-13th centuries). Could such widespread barrenness really have been a natural occurrence? This is a difficult question to answer, but we should bear in mind that the four mothers were all related, and possibly could have carried a genetic inability to have children.
Hence, the miraculous ability to suddenly have children reflects the wondrous capacity of God, and this is not a cynical display of God's might since the barrenness was not a divine ruse, rather it was a natural phenomenon.
Another commentator proposes that childbearing in the wake of barrenness signals the Almighty's direct involvement in the development of our nation. The offspring of barren biblical figures come as Divine gifts. Thus, Isaac and Jacob, the tribes and Samson and Samuel would not have been able to contribute to the building of our people were it not for Godly intervention (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Germany, 19th century).
Looking at this approach from a different angle, we can suggest that by granting children to our heroines, God takes the first step in forging a unique connection. He extends His hand in an offer of relationship, placing the onus on us to respond in kind. Hannah understands this before Samuel is even born, and therefore vows to dedicate the life of her yet-to-be-conceived son to the service of God in lieu of his birth (I Samuel 1:11).
Let us return to the prophetic words of Isaiah that portray the redemption and return of exiles in terms of a barren woman bearing children. This image may be indicative: Just as God responds to the heartfelt yearnings of the biblical barren woman, so too He will respond to the sincere prayers of our people for a return to our former glory as a proud moral nation.
The parallel, however, does not stop there. Just as the new mother must now raise her child in a manner that will validate the granting of such a precious gift, so too the return is the beginning of a new stage with new responsibilities. Any homecoming to the Land of Israel is not an end in itself. The return is an opening of the door to a new reality; a reality peppered with the challenge of cultivating holiness in this world.
The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.