Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
The themes of fertility and barrenness are central to the biblical narrative. It is striking how often we encounter barren women in the Bible. Sarah, the women of Abimelekh’s household, Rebekah, Rachel, Manoah’s wife, Hannah, and the Shunamite woman are all examples of barren women whose wombs are opened by God. Clearly, the process of reproduction holds a key to biblical theology. The very covenant of Israel is presented as a brit [covenant] of fertility. God promises Abram, “This is my covenant with you. You shall be the father of a multitude of nations…I will make you exceedingly fertile.” (Genesis 17:4, 6). This week’s parashah further emphasizes the connection between covenant and childbearing. Moses teaches:
And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers: He will favor you and bless you and multiply you; He will bless the issue of your womb…You shall be blessed above all other peoples: there shall be no sterile male or female among you or among your livestock… (Deuteronomy 7:12-14).
As we explore the theme of fertility in the context of parashat Ekev, we uncover one of the theological underpinnings of the barrenness motif in the Bible.
Our Torah portion contributes to two important elements of Jewish liturgy: the birkat ha-mazon (prayer of thanksgiving after a meal) and the Shema. In both cases, the Torah text responds to the threat of abundance. Following the directive to bless God after eating, the Torah explains the necessity for such a prayer discipline:
When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God… and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ (Deuteronomy 8:11-14,17)
This passage expresses the divine anxiety about bringing the Israelites out of the barren desert into a land of milk and honey. Perhaps the Israelites would forget the ultimate source of their livelihood amidst the lush and fertile soil? While they were depending on God for manna and miraculous bursts of water, the Israelites could not forget God’s reigning hand in their sustenance. However, as farmers on their own sovereign land, the Israelites might easily develop a sense of autonomous human control over life.
It was for this very same reason, according to our parashah, that God removed the Israelites from Egypt. The delusion of human self-sufficiency was characteristic of life in Egypt. We learn that geography and topography are central factors in the spiritual experience. Man’s relationship with water, in particular, determines his approach to the divine. Moses explains the essential difference between life in Egypt and life in the Holy Land:
For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into… soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. It is a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye…. (Deuteronomy 11:10-12)
In Egypt, the source of water lay at man’s feet: the overflow of the Nile provided ample water for irrigation. Through the human effort of collecting this water, Egyptians lived and prospered. However, God wanted to rear a nation that would not look down for an automatic source of water. Rather, Israelites in the Promised Land would look up to the heavens for rain.
Furthermore, as the Torah goes on to explain, this source of rain would depend on the moral accountability of the Israelite nation. As the second paragraph of the Shema proclaims, God brought the Israelites into a land which would physically manifest the status of their covenantal relationship with God: “If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day…I will grant the rain for your land” (Deuteronomy 11:13). The agricultural realities of the Land of Israel foster a spiritual dependency on God.
On the one hand, the Israelites enter a bountiful land. This transition from the desert to a fruitful land might result in a level of arrogance and spiritual forgetfulness. The antidote is prayer, the birkat ha-mazon. On the other hand, the Israelites enter a land dependent on rain as the main source of water. This transition from Egypt’s Nile to a land of limited water is insurance for a God-centered existence.
Our Torah portion highlights God’s fundamental role in the continuation and survival of life, from the covenantal promise of fertility to the command for blessings after meals to the assurance of rain for a faithful nation. From this perspective, the recurring theme of barrenness in the Bible is not surprising. Human procreation is perhaps the greatest threat to an awareness of God’s pivotal role in life. We create human beings out of our own bodies! And yet, the Torah teaches over and over again that it is God who opens the womb. God is the giver of life. Conception is due to the merciful attention of God. Yes, we are partners with God in the ongoing work of Creation. But, we must never forget that God alone is the architect of life.
This is why the Talmud claims that God’s own hands retain three keys: “the Key of Rain, the Key of Reproduction and the Key of Resurrection” (B. Ta’anit 2a). May our lives be blessed with abundance, but may we always remember that it is the Living Eternal God who brings us into the life of this world, sustains us in life, and returns us to life in the World to Come.