This week’s Torah portion is Vayechi, or Genesis 47:28-50:26. It is the last part of the Joseph saga (For my thoughts on two other parshot relating to Joseph, see Mikeitz and Vayigash). While there is much that could be said, there are three aspects of the parshah which I would like to concentrate on for this post: blessings being associated with fertility; verses 50:19-20’s troubling theodicy; and its women.
Let us begin with the last topic: women. Women are mentioned four times in Vayechi. Jacob recalls the burial of Rachel in verse 48:7. Joseph’s beauty is such that women often look at him (49:22). The blessing that Jacob gives to Joseph includes the blessings of both mother and father (49:25-26). At present, I will focus my commentary on Jacob’s request for burial, the fourth mention of women in this parshah.
The parshah begins with Jacob’s acknowledgement that his days are coming to an end. Although he has lived in Egypt for 17 years, he does not want to be buried there. Thus, he asks Joseph to be returned to the burial plot that Abraham bought from the Hittite Ephron all those years ago. The location is described multiple times in the parshah. The first two instances he mentions the plot he calls it the place of his forefathers (47:30) or fathers (49:29). Yet, the last time he discusses it, he speaks of it as the plot where, “… they buried Abraham and his wife Sarah, there they buried Isaac and his wife Rebecca, and there I buried Leah,” (49:31). It is as if he corrects himself. When his mind returns to the plot for the final time before his death, he remembers the three key women in his family who are also buried there: his wife, Rachel, his mother, Rebekah, and grandmother, Sarah. It could be surmised from their inclusion that their contributions to his family and his life were just as important as the men. He wants to make sure of that by recalling their names.
Next, we will examine the parshah’s problematic theodicy. As we will see, it relates to the last theme, fertility. (For more on theodicy see my previous posts: “On Love…” and “On Vayelech…”) Verse 50:20 reads, “Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] G-d designed it for good, in order to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive.” In this verse, Joseph appeases his brothers begging for forgiveness by theologizing their behavior. According to him, the suffering he experienced at their hands was an intentionally-calculated divine plan for good. Without the actions of his brothers, Joseph would have never been in Egypt and would never have had the opportunity to manage the famine and thus save his family. How he can dismiss what he suffered on account of his brothers is beyond me. Suffering and evil are not sacred plans to bring about the good. Most of the time, they are the consequences of human actions; the rest of the time they are natural events or unintentional accidents.
Moving onto fertility as blessing. It is mentioned three times in this parshah. All of them relate to the blessings of Joseph and his sons. Jacob mentions fertility in his blessings of Joseph in verses 48:4 and 16. Then, in verse 48:19, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh with fertility.
It makes sense that fertility would be a divine gift in ancient times. Childbirth was dangerous as was infancy. Likewise, the Isrealites were a small group compared to their neighbors. Numbers mattered.
What a different world we live in today when it comes to fertility! The issues here are many and multifaceted. Thus, given the limited space, I will concentrate on four.
First, there is abortion. Fertility is not always a blessing. There are instances where individuals cannot bring another child into the world for various reasons. Thus, they need both bodily autonomy and access to safe and effective methods of abortion. Yet, everywhere we look nowadays access to safe abortions as well as effective methods of birth control are slipping out from under our feet.
Likewise, there are many individuals who struggle to have the number of children they want. The causes of this are many: from systemic racism and classism to biological ailments and unknown causes of infertility. Some of these individuals go to great lengths both financially and emotionally to have children. For them, fertility and/or the choice to have the number of children they want would be an amazing blessing.
At the same time, we have to discuss the world into which children are born. Dorothy Roberts describes in “Race, Gender, and Genetic Technologies: A New Reproductive Dystopia?” that we, who live in the Global North, function under a neoliberal mentality that makes health and disability individual responsibilities rather than communal concerns. (The current pandemic is a good example of this, but that is a post for another time.). In such a society, pregnant individuals are screened for genetic abnormalities before birth and urged to choose to abort “abnormal” children. Society does not want to truly care for individuals who have mental or physical difficulties.
Finally, I would be remiss to not include an ecofeminist perspective, as I consider myself one. A.E. Kings argues, in “Intersectionality and the Changing Face of Ecofeminism,” that the overwhelming use of the world’s natural resources by the inhabitants of the Global North calls into question any policy of global population control (74). The Global South uses only a minuscule percentage of the resources to raise one child that the Global North does. We will not solve the environmental crisis the Global North has created by regulating the number of children born in the Global South.
In summary, Vayechi is a mixed bag. Its mentions of women are rather unsatisfactory although not entirely meaningless. The majority of discussions surrounding fertility in our modern world are not necessarily aligned with blessing. Finally, the divine does not use human actions which cause evil and suffering to create good. That is an unsatisfactory and highly problematic explanation of theodicy. Nevertheless, Vayechi does give us much on which to ponder.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.
3 thoughts on “Vayechi’s Take on Fertility, Women and Theodicy by Ivy Helman.”
I always enjoy the clear and unsparing eye you bring to bear on Torah portions. You open up so many things of interest and often, surprising aspects of those texts.
It is a stretch for me to believe that women are really included here because they are named…Women have no autonomy.
Very interesting post. I have what may be a dumb question, but this just now occurs to me: do you read a Hebrew scripture or an English translation? I’m guessing you read Hebrew and translate for us. Are there significant differences in translations of these chapters and verses that you parse so intelligently for us?
I also find highly interesting your comments on Global North, which consumes so much of the planet’s resources and pretty much runs the whole thing, and Global South, which seems to be mostly impoverished. You often point out things many of us just seem to have never noticed. Many thanks! And brightest blessings to you and your good work. Keep reading for us!