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Waiting for Miracles

A common theme in religious literature is the miraculous birth of its heroes. The Torah is no different. Isaac is born to Abraham and Sarah after years of infertility. Sarah is in fact ninety years old when she gives birth, and Abraham, one hundred. Isaac’s birth is not only unexpected and surprising but miraculous. The Torah’s message is clear. The only way that Abraham and Sarah could have a child is by divine intervention.

Jacob and Esau are also born to Isaac and Rebekah after the Torah reports that Rebekah is barren. There is, by the way, no suggestion that their infertility is because of Isaac. The Torah’s perspective is that it must be because of Rebekah. And so, we read, “Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived.” (Genesis 25) Still, we cannot know what causes their infertility.

We only know that they struggle to have a child. The Torah states that Isaac is sixty years old when Jacob and Esau are born. He is forty years old when they get married. Apparently, they struggled to have children for twenty years! And while it is true that oftentimes the Torah is written as if time does not exist, we frequently gloss over the significance of these intervening years. We skip over this seemingly unimportant fact because the miracle occurs. Jacob and Esau are born. God responds to Isaac’s prayers!

There are no words indicating what transpired during these years of waiting and longing. There are no reports about what Isaac said to Rebekah or she said to her husband. There are no verses suggesting what they felt. Were they consumed with doubt? Or were they instead steadfast in their faith? I wonder. Did these twenty years strengthen their relationship or cause it irreparable pain? Do these intervening years explain that as soon as the children are born, Isaac turns his favor towards Esau and Rebekah to Jacob?

The Talmud derives a lesson from this story and states that one may wait twenty years to have children. Rabbi Nahman adds that these years convinced Isaac that it was he who was infertile. There was therefore no reason for him to marry another woman. (Yevamot 64) In the rabbinic imagination Isaac’s love for Rebekah overcomes even the most challenging of circumstances. His faith that she is his destiny remains unshakeable.

And yet I remain perplexed.

I wish our tradition offered more insights about these years of waiting. Sometimes I wish we did not focus so much on the miracle but instead on the waiting. What does it mean to wait for miracles? And isn’t this what we spend most of lives doing?

Waiting, and wading through countless years of struggle, is what tests our relationships and I hope, strengthens our resolve.

The waiting tests faith. It writes a Torah that is too often glossed over and forgotten.

I believe. The waiting can strengthen love.