Parashat Toldot: The process and the goal

We can learn to appreciate the path to attaining our goals, seeing it as part of the fabric of life and not just as a means to reaching a destination.

‘Esau and Jacob reconcile,’ by Italian painter Francesco Hayez, 1844. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Esau and Jacob reconcile,’ by Italian painter Francesco Hayez, 1844.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Parashat Toldot begins with a very upsetting subject: infertility. Isaac and Rebekah waited for a child for 20 years. For 20 years they prayed to God for a pregnancy until God granted their wish and Rebekah gave birth to twins – Jacob and Esau.

We also come into contact with the subject of infertility with Sarah, who was infertile until the age of 90, when she had Isaac. In the following generation as well, Rachel – Jacob’s wife – was infertile and waited many years before she had her two sons, Joseph and Benjamin.

Other mothers in the Bible are described as infertile.

What they all had in common was that they were ultimately mothers to children who left indelible marks on history and on the presence of God in the world.

This raises the question – Why did the women around them manage to get pregnant without difficulty, while those women who were going to give birth to children marked for greatness had to first undergo suffering and anxious anticipation? Jewish sages offered this short explanation: “Why were the matriarchs infertile?... Because the Holy One, blessed be He, desired their prayers and desired their conversation” (Genesis Raba 45:4).

Based on the simple understanding of this explanation, the mothers of the nation were infertile because God wanted them to pray to Him! There is great beauty in this explanation, but, on the other hand, it seems so unfair. The matriarchs had to suffer so that God would get His wish?! The Malbim – Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser (Eastern Europe, 19th century) – was a unique and profound biblical commentator. Through his interpretation, the sages’ comment is seen in a new light: “Humans giving birth to their own kind is rooted in nature, just as it is rooted in nature that plants and animals give birth to their own kind; but giving birth to something special that will bear a select and sacred fruit goes against nature and necessitates Divine assistance.

Therefore, our matriarchs were infertile, because nature is not ready on its own until Divine power appears which is awakened by prayer...” (Malbim on Genesis 25:21).

The Malbim explains that a regular birth is part of the natural life cycle; but the birth of a person of stature is a special event requiring the appearance of godly powers in the world. The way that power is awakened to appear in the world is through prayer, which brings about Divine abundance.

TO BETTER understand the Malbim’s words, we must first take a look at our lifestyle and habits today. If, in the past, man had to work hard to build himself a specific piece of furniture or to prepare a certain food, nowadays that process has been shortened and everything can arrive with the click of a button. If we want to see the scenery of a faraway land, all we have to do is get on a plane and in just a few hours we can be at our desired destination. We have grown to expect everything to happen without delay; immediate gratification.

In a world of fast food, fast travel, online purchases, we have lost our way, we have lost sight of the process.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, 1624 (credit: WIKIPEDIA)Peter Paul Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, 1624 (credit: WIKIPEDIA)

We think the process is just a means of attaining a goal, and if we can circumvent it, even better. We even expect natural processes to go quickly, and when a problem arises, we find a better method to solve it.

If we delve for a moment into the phenomenon of bringing children into the world, we discover a fascinating world. In our bodies we have great power, the power to create life! The power to bring down a godly soul into this world! Seeing it from this perspective, it is clear that birth is an incomparably transcendent event.

If this is true regarding bringing life into the world, imagine the birth of someone special, of a soul that is unique. Undoubtedly, the birth of a child like that requires a deep process and preparation that is physical, emotional and spiritual. That is the process the nation’s matriarchs had to undergo. The prayer and deep connection with God were part of the process that made it possible for them to give birth to such great people.

Seeing it this way, we can learn to appreciate the path to attaining our goals, seeing it as part of the fabric of life and not just as a means to reaching a destination.

By doing so, we will be able to internalize that the more significant the goal is that we are striving to reach, the longer and more complex the process is that we have to go through in order to reach it. 

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.