IT'S A BOY!
Rabbi David Walk
It's déjà vu all over again. We begin the annual cycle of Torah readings with the proper celebration and enthusiasm. Then we look at this week's parsha and ask, 'Why?' Every year we reacquaint ourselves to Parshat Breshit with a certain trepidation. We're not quite sure what to make of this material. Is this science? Is this mythology? As time goes on, I'm more and more convinced that this is psychology. It's sort of like Alexander Pope said, 'The proper study of mankind is man.' So, I guess that's the proper study of Torah as well. We don't have much theology in Judaism. It's mostly law, with a little history and psychology thrown in, and most of the latter is to be found in Breishit. And therefore it's a good time to search for an overarching theme in our parsha. This year I think that I'll go for family values, since our presidential campaign seems to have abandoned them. Keep your kids home until after the election. It's not pretty out there.
Let's begin with motherhood. The female lead in our saga is none other than Chava ('because she was the mother of all life,' Genesis 3:20), whom we'll call Eve, for convenience and to eliminate all those little red lines. It's fascinating that she doesn't get her name until after the sin of the fruit and the announcement of her punishment ('I shall make severe your pangs in your pregnancy; in pain you shall bear children. And to your husband will be your urge, and he will rule over you.' Verse 16). She feels a compulsion to remain attached to her husband, and learns that childbirth will be onerous. So, that should hold down the population, right? Wrong! Chapter four opens with the first birth of a human, and Eve proclaims, 'I have acquired a man with God (4:1).' She acknowledges God's participation in this miraculous event, and this is a source for the rabbinic assertion that we really have three parents, mother, father, God. But who is this 'man' that she has acquired? Is it Adam? Is it Cain, the son? And it's probably both.
Eve is wise. She remembers what God told Adam after her emergence from his body, 'Hence forth a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh (2:24).' How do they become one flesh? Rashi explains that this is through the birth of a child. Through the child the parents become one. That's true on the level of DNA, and it's also significant for the couple. She knew that the child would be hers, but she understood that this would keep Adam attached to her as well. As many women have learned throughout history (in both Bible stories and the court of Henry VIII) the best way to keep your husband is by bearing male heirs. She not only got her son, she also maintained her hold on Adam. Women have an 'urge' for their men for support and protection; men attach to women for their offspring. This arrangement maintained family stability for ages, until the emancipation of women in the Industrial Revolution.
But is that enough? The Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270) attacked Rashi's interpretation that we become 'one flesh' through our children by pointing out that animals also become one in the offspring. Doesn't God expect more from humanity? Aren't we spiritually higher than the other animals? Isn't that why God spoke to Adam? The answer to all those questions is 'yes'. So, the Ramban explains that humans become a couple, a social unit through marriage, and that should be equally true whether there are children or not. The partnership of spouses should be seen as providing cement for the community in ways exclusive of offspring.
I'm going to suggest that the Ramban was correct before the sin, but, sadly, Rashi's position took the floor after the sin. In the aftermath of consuming the forbidden fruit, the first couple degenerated from God's lofty expectations of loving, cooperating partners to squabbling roommates. The depressing rounds of 'he said'-'she said' convinced Adam that Rashi's right. He became convinced that their relationship was only physical and pragmatic. Hence he named her 'the mother of humanity', not 'my significant other' or 'my life partner' or even 'wife'. At that point in their relationship, that's all he cared about. Sad.
At this point in time, it looks like Rashi gets an 'A', and the poor Ramban fails. But Avraham and Sarah come to the Ramban's rescue. They had the relationship that he envisioned, and, I'd like to think, God did, too. They partnered in their life's goal of spreading ethical monotheism. We call it Judaism. Their marriage (like those of Rachel and Ya'akov, as well as, Chana and Elkana) could have survived infertility. They were in love and saw themselves as a team, as a unit. Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik gave it a name: covenantal marriage. The Rav explained that even though these marriages also include physical love, they have an element not true in the practical marriages he calls 'natural', sort of like the animals have. What do these marriages include? 'Jewish marriage requires a sharing of personality…One element is sacrifice… economic obligation…A marriage community displays affection, appreciation and friendship (Family Redeemed, p. xxii).' These marriages provide the template for the relationships we should want to achieve. It's so sad that Adam and Eve never achieved the level of trust and cooperation required for these relationships. So, as in their curses from God, he was just the bread winner and she was just the baby maker.
Now, we can understand the role of the pre-Avraham material. These stories are in our Torah so that we can understand what our Patriarchs and Matriarchs contributed to world civilization. Every year we read these sagas and can't wait for Avraham and Sarah to burst upon the scene. We read and truly appreciate the advent of Avraham's clan. Hopefully, we read and discover what we'd like out of our lives and relationships.