The Book of Genesis is a book of begetting. It tells the story of the production of the twelve Israelite tribes through reproduction, through thoughtful marriages and painful pregnancies. In this week’s parsha, Rebecca speaks poignantly about the mothers’ roles in the production of Israel.
Rebecca moves from a status of barrenness to fertility after her husband pleads with God on her behalf, perhaps with her participation and perhaps without it. God grants the request and Rebecca becomes pregnant. We read, “And the children struggled inside of her.” So Rebecca says, “If so, why is this me?” It is unclear what exactly she is asking. Rashi interprets her question to mean “if pregnancy is so painful, why did I desire and pray for children?” Chizkuni takes Rashi’s reading of pain even further, reading Rebecca as saying if the pregnancy is so painful, I would rather die now than have to suffer the pain of birth as well. Ramban pushes this even further, reading Rebecca as saying, “‘If so, why am I in this world? If only I weren’t – that I would die or that I never existed,’ just as Job cries out I would have been as if I never existed, would that I had been brought from the womb to the grave.” The comparison with Job is stark. Job has lost everything and seems to be wishing to have been a stillborn. Rebecca, on the other hand, has lost nothing and God has personally allowed her to become pregnant. Yet she still ends up in the same headspace as Job.
Later, we will see Rachel too speak of death and children. She tells Jacob, “Give me children, or if not, I am dead.” Rashi, citing Bereshit Rabbah, learns from this statement that one who has no children is regarded as a dead person. With Rachel and Rebecca, we have two perspectives on pregnancy. Rebecca wishes for death because she is with child and Rachel wishes for death because she is without child. In the end, Rachel will die during childbirth. She gets the child she longed for but she is a dead person anyway.
Rebecca will go on to give birth to the twins. It is not until later that we find her pondering the reason for her existence again. After Jacob has followed her advice and taken the birthright and the blessing, Esau intends to kill him. Rebecca sends Jacob, her beloved child, away and will not see him again. To make this happen, Rebecca tells Isaac, “I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries a Hittite woman like these, from among the native women, why am I alive?” At this point, Rebecca is long done with bearing children. From Rashi’s comment on Rachel, it seems that Rebecca has ensured her posterity and can now die in peace, knowing she has secured her legacy. But in order to ensure that the Israelite tribes emerge, she still needs to play an active role in the matchmaking of her child. The point of her life is not defined by her pregnancy, but rather by the passing down of God’s blessing.
Rebecca and Rachel’s lives also are defined by God’s curse, given to Eve. We read, “in pain and sorrow will bear children.” Indeed, trying to conceive, being pregnant, and bearing children are the most trying times of our ancestors’ lives. It is enough to drive our matriarchs to question the value of being alive. But it is also consistently our matriarchs who concern themselves with ensuring that the line continues, that God’s blessing is passed down and that the Israelite family is created. Rebecca understands something deep about life. She has faced death, even longed for death, and still chosen life.