Kol Isha: Spiritual midwifery

Rachel's demise at the birth of her second son may be the reason why the sages chose God's act of opening her womb as their proof text for the divine keys to birth.

According to the Talmud, God alone holds the keys to birth, rain, and the resurrection of the dead (B. Nidda 2a). Intuitively this rings true, for any woman who has given birth knows, within the depths of her womb, that she has gone through something spiritual. Labor can feel like a wave of God's strong arm rippling through your body. Where once you were whole, singular, one, now you unfold, miracle of nature, into two - a mother and suckling infant. According to aggadic lore, when the baby emerges out of the mother's womb, a voice is released from one end of the world to the other (B. Yoma 20b). What is the nature of that voice? A yearning for embryonic harmony? A primal scream of pain or joy? Or is it the near brush with death even modern medicine cannot dispel? The proof text in the talmudic passage (B. Nidda 2a) for God's exclusive role in opening the womb comes from the story of Rachel: "Now God remembered Rachel; God heeded her and opened her womb" (Gen. 30:22). In only one other place does the Tanach mention that God opened a woman's womb, and that is with regard to Rachel's sister: "The Lord saw that Leah was unloved and He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren" (Gen. 29:31). Why does this earlier verse not serve as the proof text for the talmudic passage? Leah too was barren, according to the sages, and God opened her womb as compensation for being the less-loved wife (Gen. Rab. 71:1; PRK 20). Rachel, on the other hand, was barren for years, crying to her husband, Jacob: "Give me children, or I shall die" (Gen. 30:1). A terrible irony lies in that cri de coeur; the second time her womb is opened, she does die. "As she breathed her last - for she was dying - she named him Ben-oni [son of my sorrow]; but his father called him Benjamin. Thus Rachel died…" (Gen. 35:18). I suggest that Rachel's demise at the birth of her second son may be the awful reason why the sages chose God's act of opening her womb (Gen. 30:22) as their proof text for the divine keys to birth. Birth inevitably embodies the immanence of death, if not upon the birthing stool or in the labor room, then in the spiritual awakening to one's own mortality, the bed of worms and dust to which all flesh is doomed. Yet another midrashic passage elaborates upon the encounter with death at birth: R. Levi opened [his drash], "Indeed you are from nothing and your deeds are naught, [an abomination is he who chooses you]" (Isa. 41:24). "From nothing" - full of so little, but a fetid drop. "Your deeds are naught [me'afa]"? The birthing mother is called by three names, all of which recall a near-death encounter: Hayata, Mahbalta and Matbera. "Hayata," for she could have died yet lived; "Mahbalta," for death had an abiding presence by her, as it says, she is bound in the travail [habal] for the sake of life, not as a pledge for death - the infant or mother, both so close to death, are perhaps the garment that must be returned (Exod. 22:25); and "Matbera,"for she crouches upon the birthing stool (mashber) at the brink of death [matbera is Aramaic for the birthing stool (ovnayim) (cf. T Onq. on Exod. 1:16)]. "An abomination, He chooses you…" (Isa. 41:24) - though the infant emerges from his mother's womb filthy and foul, and covered in membrane and blood, all embrace and kiss him [Lev. Rab. 27:7]. The opening of this homily is odd, for the text in Isaiah speaks about the emptiness of idols, the abomination of choosing to worship a statue of wood and stone. Yet the sages suggest it is God who chooses the abomination - the mewling and puking infant, created from a fetid drop. Two other images in this midrashic passage strike a dissonant chord. The midrash also mentions a hundred moans of the woman in labor, clearly a play on the word "naught" (me'afa) in the quote from Isaiah - a hint of the hundred cries (mea pe'iyot) she utters. Yet of those one hundred, only one is for life. Perhaps that one cry is the voice which travels from one end of the world to the other, affirming the miracle of birth, the triumph of life over death. The writer lectures in Hebrew Bible and midrash at Matan, the Sadie Rennert Institute for Women's Torah Studies, in Jerusalem, as well as internationally