Rachel says to Jacob "Give me children, or I shall die." Yaakov replies: "Can I take the place of Gd, who has denied you fruit of the womb?" (Gen. 30:1-2)
The answer to this rhetorical question, in Yaakov's time, was a given. It's truly ironic, however, that in our time, we can answer part of this question different. I say "part of" for reasons which I hope will become obvious in time.
We can, indeed, give children to women who would not otherwise be able to have children through the procedures (note how I refrain from calling them "miracles") of modern medical science. In vitro fertilization, surrogate pregnancies, perhaps someday even cloning are among the methods available to couples wishing to have children but find themselves impaired for one reason or another.
In our post-modern world, we seem to have put aside for the moment even questioning the use of many of these procedures - giving great importance to the commandment p'ru uv'ru - be fruitful and multiply. Oh, for sure, we wrangle with the ethical implications, we consider the value of such procedures, and even of reproduction itself. We reconcile our ancient values with modern knowledge. Even great contemporary Orthodox rabbis have endorsed certain forms of genetic testing and conception. (The Conservative movement is currently encouraging its members to very carefully study and consider the implications of genetic testing.)
We look at these childless couples, and show them our sympathy, and somehow wonder at our own humanity and compassion when we begin to question the many problems that surround alternative methods of conception. The high cost clearly makes almost all the procedures exclusionary. There are millions of parentless children awaiting adoption. Precious medical resources are being utilized to help people who want children (and can afford it or are willing to bankrupt themselves in their quest) rather than being available to the many with children who desperately need the medical services. We often feel guilty when we ask questions like these. How can we want to deny anyone children?
Our ancestors dealt with the same question. And they had a solution - surrogate motherhood - allowing maids to conceive and bear children for their mistresses. Inelegant, perhaps, but practical.
But we can go further today. We can allow the barren mother herself, in some cases, to become pregnant and birth a child. In Yaakov's world view, only Gd could do this. Does this make us Gd? Using fertility drugs, we can make the (apparently) barren woman conceive. Does this make us Gd?
Yaakov's rhetorical question has two parts. The second addresses the specific situation of Rachel's barrenness. But the first part can and does stand on its own. That does not automatically remove it from its context. While Yaakov may have been relating it to this specific problem, it was a very definite part of Yaakov's world view. It is far less so part of ours. In our time, we can help those denied the fruit of the womb. But is this really taking the place of Gd?
Ask yourself "can I take the place of Gd?" We can do "Gdlike things," but can we take Gd's place? I imagine the answer to this is the same as it was in the days of our ancestors. At least I'd like to hope it is.
For those without faith, it may be possible to answer Yaakov's question in the affirmative. For those with faith, it may be a question we wrestle and struggle with, or it may be a straightforward negative reply.
I believe there is great value in asking ourselves this question on a regular basis. It can serve as a reminder to truly examine the scope of Gd's creation. Surely it is magnificent and miraculous enough to make us recognize that we are not Gd's equal.
Maybe we can be a temp worker, a stand in for Gd at times, in effect taking Gd's place. But, at least for me, in the long term, Gd's tenure, Gd's job security are safe. Science wroughts not miracles but realities. Miracles are still Gd's purview. May they always remain so. For if Gd has truly given us the power and ability to surpass Gd, then woe unto us, unto Gd, and to our universe.
Go, welcome the Shabbat Bride with candles, wine, bread, prayer and song. Experience the miracle of Shabbat. Then ask yourself: "Can I take the place of Gd?"
©1999 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some Other Musings on the same parasha
Vayetze 5761-Change in Perspective (or Change, In Perspective)
Vayetze 5763-Now and Then
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