Revisiting words written 19 years ago.
וַתֵּ֣רֶא רָחֵ֗ל כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יָֽלְדָה֙ לְיַעֲקֹ֔ב וַתְּקַנֵּ֥א רָחֵ֖ל בַּאֲחֹתָ֑הּ וַתֹּ֤אמֶר אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹב֙ הָֽבָה־לִּ֣י בָנִ֔ים וְאִם־אַ֖יִן מֵתָ֥ה אָנֹֽכִי׃
When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.”
וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֥ף יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּרָחֵ֑ל וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הֲתַ֤חַת אֱלֹהִים֙ אָנֹ֔כִי אֲשֶׁר־מָנַ֥ע מִמֵּ֖ךְ פְּרִי־בָֽטֶן׃
Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?”
The answer to the rhetorical question “Can I take the place of G”d” in Yaakov’s time, was a given. It’s truly ironic, however, that in our time, we can answer part of this question differently. 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. I am pleased to know personally no small number of people who have benefitted from our ability to help people become parents through medical science.
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. (At the time I wrote this back in 1999, the Conservative movement was actively encouraging its members to very carefully study and consider the implications of genetic testing. Now genetic testing and even learning about your DNA fingerprint is normative.)
In 1999, times were different. I wrote thusly:
We look at these childless [edit 2018: individuals and] 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 G”d could do this. Does this make us G”d? Using fertility drugs, we can make the (apparently) barren woman conceive. Does this make us G”d?
Science has made vast strides in these last two decades. I wonder, however, if society itself has been able to make the vast ethical and moral strides necessary to deal with our ever-changing reality. I could have let my words from 1999, simply mentioning childless couples, stand. But here, in today’s reality, I could not let those words go unremarked – even though I knew I would be commenting on them here. So I chose to note the omission right then and there.
As I wrote 19 years ago, 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 G”d?
Ask yourself “can I take the place of G”d?” We can do “G”d-like things,” but can we take G”d’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.
Here in 2018, I’m still hopeful that the answer remains that we cannot. However, that answer is tempered by my ever evolving understanding of and relationship with my understanding of G”d.
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 G”d’s creation. Surely it is magnificent and miraculous enough to make us recognize that we are not G”d’s equal.
Maybe we can be a temp worker, a stand in for G”d at times, in effect taking G”d’s place. But, at least for me, in the long term, G”d’s tenure, G”d’s job security are safe. Science brings about not miracles but realities. Miracles are still G”d’s purview. May they always remain so. For if G”d has truly given us the power and ability to surpass G”d, then woe unto us, unto G”d, and to our universe.
I read a lot of science fiction. In it, humankind achieves feats that would seem impossible for us to achieve now. Even more “G”d-like” acts. I worry, as do others, that as our abilities to manipulate our universe improve, we will be tempted to be less cautious, to think of ourselves as being in the place of G”d, or having no need for G”d. I worry about that time. I may not be certain about the existence of a Deity, but I am certain that a universe in which humankind believes it is equivalent to being G”d is not a universe I would like to see. I really do pray that a time comes when we encounter something that is truly beyond our ability to ever understand it. (In a perverse way, this will save us, as it gives us an ever-unreachable goal that we will foolishly keep trying to reach and surpass. This need to think we can understand everything, to no longer have need for a G”d concept will drive us to, hopefully, to doing ever better things along the way to continual failure to achieve that singular aim. Yes, the logic is perverse and circular. For now, it will do. I will now take my own advice form 1999:
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 G”d?”
©2018 (portions ©1999) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Vayeitzei 5778 – Redux 5761 – Change, In Perspective
Vayeitzei 5777 – Being FruitBull
Vayetze 5776 – Now and Then (Redux 5763)
Vayeitzei 5775 – Hapax Shabbat
Vayeitzei 5774 – Terms and Conditions Revisted
Vayeitze 5773 – Mandrakes and More
Vayeitze 5772 – Stumbling on Smooth Paths
Vayeitzei 5771 – Luz is No Loser
Vayeitzei 5769 – Going Down and Loving It!
Vayeitzei 5768 – Encounters
Vayeitzei 5767-Hapax On All Your Hapaxes
Vayetze 5766-Pakhad HaShem?
Vayetze 5765-Cows and Cranberries
Vayetze 5764-Terms and Conditions
Vayetze 5763-Now and Then
Vayetze 5761/2-Change in Perspective
Vayetze 5760-Taking Gd’s Place