Rabbi Gideon Weitzman
Former Rosh Kollel in Kansas City

From Infertile to Fertile

This week’s Haftarah, the fifth in the series of seven comforting Haftarot taken from Yeshayahu, opens with a rather unusual verse. “Sing, barren woman, who did not give birth, break out into song and cry out, one who did not undergo labor pains, for the children of the infertile woman are more than the children of the married woman, says God.”

The obvious question is how can the infertile woman be happy? We know that infertile men and woman suffers great stress and deep psychological pain. This pain can drive them to illness and starts to overtake their personal and professional life. Yet the prophet instructs the barren woman to rejoice, the woman who has never experienced childbirth is commanded to break out into song. Is this at all possible? What has the infertile couple got to be happy about?

The Radak explains that this refers to the woman who is now infertile, but is destined to have children in the future. True, she suffered and experienced long periods of anguish and pain, but she overcame the obstacles and hurdles along the way. Now she rejoices whereas once she lamented her fate.

The children of the infertile woman are greater than the woman who married and had children. The fertile woman has children, but may not appreciate them or their individual achievements, after all she has other children to take care of and worry about. A woman who gives birth after a long period of infertility often has a much greater appreciation of her children. She does not take them for granted and sees the miracle of pregnancy and childbirth clearly in her own children.

The meaning of the prophecy is clear. Currently, the Jewish people are barren and cannot develop themselves far away from their own land. However, in the time of the redemption our situation changes and we start to be productive and to flourish once more. Like the woman who eventually gives birth, we will learn to appreciate the Beit HaMikdash and Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel all that much more.

Beruriah and the Heretic

The Gemara turns this entire explanation on the head. “A tzaduki once said to Beruriah, ‘It says – Sing, barren woman, who did not give birth, because she has not given birth she should sing?!’ She replied ‘Fool, look at the end of the verse – For the children of the infertile woman are more than the children of the married woman, says God, what does it mean Sing, barren woman, who did not give birth? The congregation of Israel should rejoice, as they are like the barren woman who has not given birth to children that will go to Gehinnom, like you” (Berachot 10a).

The Sadducees were a sect that appeared during the Second Temple period. They did not accept the Oral Torah, and they rejected the concept of reward and punishment. Our Sages recorded that they entire sect was founded as a result of a mistaken understanding of the concept of reward and punishment. “Antignos from Socho received [the Sinai tradition] from Shimon the Righteous. He would say ‘Do not be like servants who serve the master in order to receive a reward. Rather you should be like servants who serve their Master not in order to receive a reward” (Avot 1:3).

“Antignos from Socho had two students who learnt his words and taught students, and their students taught their own students. They thought and said ‘Why did our teachers say such a thing, can a worker work all day and not receive payment in the evening? However, if our teachers knew that there was more than one world and there will be a resurrection of the dead they would not have said this.’ They both left the Torah and established two sects. The tzadukim, Sadducees, and the baytusim. They would use gold and silver vessels all their lives. The tzadukim said that it is a tradition for the Perushim that they suffer in this world and receive no reward in the next world” (Avot DeRabbi Natan 5:2).

These tzadukim, named after their founder Tzadok, would spend their lives enjoying physical pleasures and claimed that there was no other world where one would receive a reward for their actions in this world. They scoffed at the actions of the Perushim, the Pharrisees, who did not spend all their days in pursuit of physical pleasure.

Their whole philosophy was based on a misreading of Antignos’ saying. He meant that while there is a reward in the next world, this should not be the motivation for our actions. One should perform good deeds and God’s will because it is right to do so, not with an eye on the reward for such behavior. Tzadok and his followers read this to mean that there was no reward at all and therefore one should enjoy the world as much as possible and not do they righteous thing.

The tzaduki’s challenge to Beruriah can now be understood. He claimed that there is no other world, only the here and now. How can the barren women find any joy in such a world? Beruriah answers him that his world leads to Gehinnom, while the Perushim’s world may seem tougher and difficult, but it leads to great rewards in the next world.

Beruriah’s Own Situation

The Midrash tells the tragic story of Beruriah’s own personal life; this can explain another dimension in the exchange between her and the tzaduki. Beruriah was married to the great scholar of the Mishnaic era, Rabbi Meir, and they had two sons.

One Shabbat afternoon Rabbi Meir was learning in the study hall. His two sons died [at home]. [Beruriah] took them to the attic and spread a sheet over them. When Rabbi Meir came home after Shabbat he asked “Where are my two sons?” “They went,” she replied. He made havdalah, then ate and blessed after the food. She said “I have one question for you. If someone came and lent me something, and then comes to get the deposit back, should I return it or not?” “One has to return the deposit,” he said. She then showed him his two dead sons. He started to cry. She said to him “Did you not tell me that we must return a deposit? Thus God has given, God has taken away, may God’s name be blessed” (Yilkut Shimoni on Mishlei 31:10).

Beruriah suffered from her own infertility. She gave birth to two sons, but lost them. While her husband was distraught at seeing his dead sons, she retained her faith in God and the truth of His Divine plan.

The tzaduki challenged Beruriah’s faith. He asked how she could continue to believe in God, if He took her two children from her. She replied that this too was part of the Divine plan. Sometimes to be removed from the world is preferable to remaining in the world. She claimed that while the tzaduki’s children did remain in the world, they continued to sin and thus ensured that their eventual punishment would be greater.

However, her own children had indeed died, but they would receive their reward in the next world for all their good deeds. On a personal level, of course, Beruriah would prefer that her children would have remained alive. But, on a spiritual level, she understood that God had taken them for a reason and there was a Divine plan and purpose for the world and for each individual.

God and the Jews

The Midrash brings this same story (see Yilkut Shimoni on Yeshayahu 54:1), however, it changes one small but significant detail. The word min is substituted for tzaduki. Min refers to one who rejects the entire Torah, and is used to denote the early Christians, who both argued with the Jewish establishment and encouraged the Romans to deal harshly and ruthlessly with the Jews.

The min turns to Beruriah and challenges her and her people’s faith. The situation in Israel at the time was bleak. The Romans controlled the land and prevented the Jews from performing mitzvot and living according to God’s will. How could the Jews still stubbornly cling to their faith? Did they not see what was going on around them, did they not comprehend the severity of their situation? Surely, the min claimed, God had forsaken them and chosen others, a new covenant.

This ties in with the theme of the Haftarah as part of the Seven Weeks of Consolation. The prophet Yeshayahu comforted the Jews after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. On the face of it, the Jews were in a sorry state. Yet, Beruriah’s answer comes to give a new perspective. True, it appears that God has rejected us, but, in truth, He has exiled us because by leaving us in Israel the situation would have been even worse. Your children, replies Beruriah to the min, are indeed alive but they are destined to Gehinnom, your belief will lead you away from God. Our tenacity of faith enables us to cleave to God even when our situation appears to negate such behavior.

This exchange reminds us of another dialogue brought by the Gemara between God and Avraham. The Gemara based this story on the verses in the book of Yirmiyahu, “What is My beloved doing in My house, as she has acted vilely with many, and holy flesh has passed from you? You rejoice when you do evil. God has called you a healthy olive tree with good fruit” (Yirmiyahu 11:15-16).

Rabbi Yitzchak said that when the Temple was destroyed God found Avraham standing in the Temple. “What is My beloved doing in My house?” “I came to see about my children,” he [Avraham] answered. He said “Your children have sinned and been exiled.” “Maybe it was unintentional.” He said “She has acted vilely.” “Maybe only a few of them sinned.” “With many.” “You should have remembered the brit milah.” He said “Holy flesh has passed from you.” He [Avraham] said “If You had waited they may have repented.” He replied “You rejoice when you do evil.”

He placed his hand on his head and cried. “Maybe they have no hope,” he said. A heavenly voice was heard that declared “God has called you a healthy olive tree with good fruit.” In the same way that the olive tree eventually gives fruit, thus Israel will eventually bear fruit (Menachot 53b).

Avraham is distraught on seeing and hearing the plight of his children, the Jewish people. He argues with God that He should have let them be and forgiven them. Yet God explains, using the verses in Yirmiyahu, that the people deserved their punishment. Avraham argued that God should have given them more time and maybe they would have repented. God explained that it was too late, they enjoyed sinning and leaving them in Israel would only have increased their evil deeds. It was kindness on God’s part to exile them at this point.

This is the same answer that Beruriah gives the heretic, and the same direction that Yeshayahu’s comfort takes. God’s is intimately involved in the world and He determines that there are times when not having is better than having. Yet this is not a permanent situation, the barren woman will one day give birth, the people will again give fruit like the olive tree. We have to believe in the justice and kindness of the Divine plan even when it remains hidden and is not apparent.