Drash on Parashat Eikev
Fertility: Not for women alone
Rabbi Kim Ettlinger
Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, Victoria
בָּר֥וּךְ תִּֽהְיֶ֖ה מִכָּל־הָעַמִּ֑ים לֹא־יִהְיֶ֥ה בְךָ֛ עָקָ֥ר וַֽעֲקָרָ֖ה וּבִבְהֶמְתֶּֽךָ׃
You shall be blessed above all other peoples: there shall be no sterile male or female among you or among your livestock.
The thing I love about Torah, are that there are many difficult verses to challenge. And, lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Deut. 7:14 which is found in this week’s parashah, Eikev. In context, the verse occurs as part of Moses’s continued speech to the Israelites on behalf of God. If Israel does everything God wants, then all will be good for the Israelites. We read this type of theology many times in the Torah. Certainly, as a contemporary Jew, I, like many others truggle with this literalism and we look for the meaning behind, or ask the question, what can we learn from this challenging text?
Can one imagine, living in Biblical times or nearby, and a couple who struggles with infertility, reads this verse. Over the centuries people would automatically assume, that they had not followed God’s commands appropriately and so were receiving, in some form, Divine punishment. The verse is specific, fertility is a blessing. And, it is a reward for obeying God’s rules and observing them carefully. Further, it is part of the covenant as well as an oath God made with our ancestors. There is a lot of theological and practical pressure embedded in this verse.
Some who read this text and consider it only on a pshat level (most basic), would consider that it may be because of their lack of attention to the detail of following God’s mitzvot (religious obligations), that things do not go well. However, we recognise that this type of interventionist theology does not sit well with us moderns.
It is interesting and essential to notice that this is the only refence to male infertility in the Tanakh. This stands in stark contrast to the usual focus on female infertility. For example, we know that our matriarchs struggled with Sarah (Gen. 11-21), Rachel (Gen. 30) and Hannah 1 (Sam. 1). All these women are ‘barren.’ The Women’s Torah Commentary, points out that Ruth’s first husband may potentially have been infertile, as they were married ten years without children (Ruth 1:4-5), before he died and when she married Boaz, they have a child (Ruth 4.13).
Fertility technology today is indeed incredible, and perhaps even ‘godly’. Many couples who may have felt and experienced the ‘curse’ of infertility are enjoying the birth of children. Couple, too, who never dreamed of children, through fertility treatments are too, raising beautiful and healthy children. Sometimes, we humans, need some help. God gave us the ability to create technology, to create ideas. To me, God’s work, even if through an indirect path has the potential for not so small miracle.
Today, many families or individuals who wish to have children have the potential. Fertility treatment along with the various types of IVF technology allows for different types of families. The technology doesn’t discriminate between individuals or same sex couples wanting to enrich their lives with children, only, society, conservative ideas wrapped in religion does.
I recognise, that even with the best of technology, children may not be an option for some. The journey towards desired parenthood, can be extremely painful, tiring and heart wrenching.
I want to reiterate one of the main points of this verse, which often is overlooked and certainly under-estimated. It brings male infertility to the forefront. Fertility does not solely rest on the woman. It is a shared difficulty. We are only human, and our bodies at times can only do so much. Infertility is not a personal failure, nor a Godly one.
May God comfort all who have and those who struggle with fertility. May they be comforted among all our ancestors who too have struggled with this age old phenomena.