Sarah, Rivka, Rachel. Three of our four Imahot had great difficulty conceiving and only after many years were blessed with children. "G-d yearns for the prayer of the righteous" our Sages cryptically teach in explaining the barrenness of the matriarchs.
"And G-d saw that Leah was hated and He opened her womb" (29:31). Apparently Leah too was to have difficulty conceiving, but as "compensation" for being hated had children easily. The inability to have children when one desperately wants to is the source of sadness and even suffering. How one reacts to such a predicament can be quite revealing. Our matriarchs present us with varied reactions to their infertility.
"Sarai said to Abram: G-d has kept me from having children. Come to my slave and hopefully I will be build up (have children) through her" (16:2). "And Sarai the wife of Abram took Hagar and gave her to her husband as a wife. Not only does Sarah willingly allow her "competition" to marry her husband, she initiates, encourages and arranges for it all. Her relationship with her husband was truly "and they shall be of one flesh" ( 2:24 ). So much so that any child of Abraham and Hagar is also by extension a child of Sarah. Sarah herself would be "built up" through Hagar's child. She was not threatened by this. Abraham and Sarah were so focused on bringing the message of ethical monotheism to the world; if that meant Sarah would have no biological part of the future of the Jewish people so be it. "And Abraham and Sarah were elderly and Sarah no longer had female periods" (18:11). The relationship of Abraham and Sarah was so strong and so unified that the presence of another wife did not interfere with their oneness. It did not dawn on them that anything should be done differently.
"And Isaac pleaded with G-d for his wife because she was barren. G-d granted his plea and Rebecca became pregnant" (25:21-22). If we were not paying close attention we might not even notice that Yitzchak and Rivka waited 20 years for a child. Yitzchak is the happy recipient of whatever G-d brings him. His way is the way of contemplation and prayer letting others act. Rivka remarkably is silent. It is only when her labour pains are great does she begin to"complain". Whether this is due to her unwillingness to share Yitzchak with another woman or her realization that Yitzchak needed a special type of "companion" we do not know. In any event we see the stoic acceptance of the will of G-d.
How different is the reaction of Rachel to her infertility. "And Rachel was jealous of her sister and she said to Jacob; Give me children if not, let me die; Jacob became furious with Rachel" (30:1-2). Jealousy, bickering and anger marked the deteriorating relationship of Jacob and Rachel. It is Leah who becomes the mother of the monarchy, priesthood and Torah scholars. It is she who is buried with Yaakov.
Perhaps it was the fact that Jacob could and did have children not with a maidservant but with Rachel's sister no less, that increased those feelings of jealousy. It is clear from the names given to the future twelve tribes, that Leah and Rachel saw children, as defining their relationship with Jacob, with each other and their own self worth. "She named him Reuven. G-d has seen my troubles now my husband will love me" "Because G-d has seen that I am unloved and she named him Shimon" "Now my husband will become attracted to me ..therefore he was called Levi". By the time Yehuda the fourth son was born Leah felt the relationship with Yaakov was rock solid and thus "this time let me praise G-d" ( odeh ). With the relationship cemented "she then stopped having children".
It is at this point, when Rachel feels Jacob slipping away that she demands give me children or give me death. Consigned to a life of childlessness she adopts Sarah's method of a maidservant but clearly not with the same enthusiasm. And what does she call Bilhah's child? "I have been twisted around with my sister through all of G-d's round about ways ( naphtuley ) but I have finally won. She therefore named the child Naphtali". And when she finally does have her own child she names him Yosef because "G-d has gathered away ( Asaf ) my humiliation". Whereas Sarah could laugh at the prospect of having a child Rachel could only wipe away her humiliation.
Our Matriarchs present different approaches to dealing with childlessness. Making alternate arrangements, prayer and bitterness. All three are understandable and even appropriate. May the Jewish people be blessed with the voices of children bringing joy to their parents and their people. Shabbat Shalom!