“When we were young, we were taught again and again that we shouldn’t get pregnant. Now we can’t!”
That plaintive wail from a childless 43 year-old woman caught my attention. Holly Finn describes the mortification and expense of countless in-vitro-fertilization procedures she endured. A little cashmere baby sweater goes everywhere with her; she bought it years earlier for the baby she hoped she’d one day have. Now Holly weeps about having the sweater but not the child. Her most excruciating experiences are being in the company of other women chattering happily about their children, or with men, most of whom simply don’t get how she feels.
Holly’s sad situation echoes the Biblical account of Rachel. When Leah repeatedly gives birth, the childless Rachel cries out in agony to her husband:
…give me children otherwise I’m as good as dead.
Jacob responds truthfully, but with little emotional sensitivity:
…am I in place of God…
From this and other Biblical examples we learn that men find it almost impossible to relate to the pain of childless women.
Interestingly, the phrase, “Am I in place of God?” only appears on two occasions in all Tanach (Hebrew Scriptures). The first appears above when Jacob seems to shrug off responsibility for his wife, Rachel’s, grief.
The second instance comes after Jacob dies in Egypt. Ten of his sons fear retribution from their brother Joseph for having cruelly sold him into slavery so many years earlier. They concoct a story of their late father begging Joseph to forgive them. In response, Joseph explains that though they meant to harm him, God planned it to work out for the best. His opening words are:
…don’t be frightened, am I in place of God?
A permanent principle of ancient Jewish wisdom is that we must scrutinize all occurrences of rare Biblical phrases to discover hidden message that link the separate instances.
Clearly Jacob’s hurtful response to Rachel when he basically said, “What do you want me to do about it, I’m not God,” must be linked to Joseph. The son of that very Rachel uses that very phrase, “I’m not God,” to the other sons of that very Jacob.
What is the link?
Nothing we ever do or even say vanishes. Its impact endures forever in one form or another. When you light a candle and let it burn down, you might think you’ve made the candle vanish. In reality you converted it into light, heat, and various gases released into the atmosphere. Joseph was attempting to reassure his brothers, yet his words must have reminded them that while he might forgive them, they still need to answer to God for their actions. Jacob’s lack of sensitivity impacted the world in a way that endured, resurfacing and causing pain in the next generation.
I once witnessed high spirited bantering about corporate downsizing at a business lunch; only I knew that one of us at the table had received his pink slip that morning. Did his heart break?
How often have I been insensitive to the inner pain of others? The Biblical repetition of words reminds us that as we work on improving our tennis game or losing another three pounds, we should also embrace the exciting challenge of increasing our sensitivity to the hidden pain felt by others.
Reprinted from July 26, 2011