Kol Isha: Sing, O barren one

Why would conception, pregnancy, labor and birth be fraught with travail?

Rachel and Leah 88 248 (photo credit: )
Rachel and Leah 88 248
(photo credit: )
The lyrical words: "Sing, O barren one, you who bore no child!" open Isaiah's prophecy to Zion. This passage constitutes the fifth of the seven haftarot of consolation following Tisha Be'av (Isa. 54:1-10). Why is Zion (Jerusalem) personified as a barren woman? The midrash Pesikta de-Rav Kahana suggests that there were seven barren ones (akarot) in ancient Jewish history: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Manoah's wife, Hannah and Zion. That is, the matriarchs of Genesis, Samson's mother and Samuel's mother were all initially infertile. It is surprising that even Leah is counted among the barren matriarchs, when she was the mother to seven of Jacob's children. Yet the same verse identifying Rachel as barren, suggests that God had a hand in her sister's fertility as well: "When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened up her womb" - if she had not been barren, there would have been no need for divine intervention - "And Rachel was barren (akara)" (Genesis 29:31). Why would conception, pregnancy, labor and birth be fraught with travail for so many prominent women in the Bible? Perhaps to emphasize that "God holds the keys to birth" (B. Nidda 2a). How, then, does this divine "locking" and "opening" of the doors carry over into the promises to Zion? With regard to Jerusalem, the midrash continues: "The words, 'He gives the barren woman a home,' (Psalms 113:9) apply to Zion, as it says: 'Sing, O barren one, you who bore no child!' (Isa. 54:1); so do the words, 'making her a joyous mother of children' (Psalms loc. cit.), You [Zion], will say in your heart: 'Who has borne me these? I was bereaved and barren, exiled and put away - so who has reared these? I was left all alone - where then have these come from?'" (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 20:1). Jerusalem, stirred from her years of weeping alone, lifts her head, and is astounded to see the hordes of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren returning from exile. Just this week the halls of the Hebrew University were thronged with participants in the World Congress of Jewish Studies. The roads were clogged as I drove past the Old City. The Sultan's Pool was packed every night for the concerts at the Arts Fair. And the bereaved mother shakes her head, "Where have all these people come from?" It is the ingathering of the exiles. Of all the six barren women in the Bible, Rachel's life most poignantly mirrors the fate of Zion. Playing on the Hebrew word for barren, akara, the same midrash continues: "R. Abba bar Kahana said: Most of the guests assembled at Boaz's wedding were descendants of Leah, yet they blessed Ruth by saying, 'May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel...' (Ruth 4:11) [that is they mentioned Rachel before Leah, though she was the younger sister and second wife]. Rachel was held to be first [ikar] among the wives, as is implied by the verse, 'And Rachel was barren [akara]' (Gen. 29:31). R. Isaac said that Rachel was first among the wives [reading akara not as 'barren,' but as akar, meaning root]. And R. Shimon ben Yohai said: Many important events depended on Rachel, and so the Jewish people are named after her, (A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are gone)" (Jeremiah 31:15). That is all the Israelites who went into exile are called Rachel's children by the prophet Jeremiah, though the majority are descended from Leah. The beautiful, beloved wife of Jacob, first of his longing, was not only barren (akara) and favored (akeret habayit), but also uprooted (akura). Her children would become the children of exile - Joseph in Egypt and the descendants of Benjamin, Mordechai and Esther, in Babylon. Her burial in the hinterland, on the border between exile and the Land of Israel, forms a signpost pointing towards their fate. Jacob recalled her burial with deep pangs of conscience to his son Joseph (Gen. 48:7). After her tragic death in childbirth, upon their return to Canaan, he hastily buried her "on the way," not in the Cave of the Patriarchs where Leah would be buried. He did not even take her to Bethlehem to bring her into the Land (Rashi, loc. cit.). Her burial on the border foreshadows not only the exile, but also intimates the possibility of return. According to the midrash, as the Babylonian general Nebuzaradan marched the Israelites into exile, they passed by Rachel's burial site, and she emerged from her tomb, weeping and begging for mercy. And God assured her: "Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears; for there is a reward for your labor - declares the Lord: They shall return from the enemy's land" (Jer. 31:16, Lamentations Rabba 24). Zion, the city once great with people, in Lamentations is described as a widow, desolate, bereft of her children (1:1, 4). But in the prophecy of consolation, she is the barren one, become mother of many, adjured by the prophet to shout with joy and break into song. "For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the Lord" (Isa. 54:1). She has become the matriarch Rachel, standing over her tomb, watching in amazement the ingathering of exiles. The writer lectures in Bible and midrash at Matan, the Sadie Rennert Institute for Women's Torah Studies in Jerusalem, as well as internationally.