The Result of the Tzaar Inherent in Pregnancy and Birth &
How the World Cannot Exist Without Righteous Women
The Kli Yakar's explanation of this verse has to do with all the stuff women go through in the process of enabling their husbands to fulfill to their utmost the mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying.
Upon reading what he wrote, I felt so validated – the Kli Yakar understands what I'm going through!
The Kli Yakar compares the above verse to what the Torah wrote about Avraham’s years (“that he lived”), noting that regarding Sara, it does not say “that she lived.” Why?
Since a woman must bear the pain [tzaar] of birth and pregnancy and she is under the sway of her husband [reshut baalah aleyah], and therefore not all of her days can be called “living.”
Not always, but sometimes.
I took this to mean that feeling overwhelmed at times was not a sign that there's something wrong with you, but that it is a normal phase to go through, a very natural response to, well, the copious tzaar innate to this otherwise blessed experience.
Finding it so validating, I wanted to share this wonderful interpretation with everyone so that they could feel good, too.
But the first person I told it to, a seemingly very charedi lady, responded so negatively that I wanted to run and hide under the table.
After hearing this Kli Yakar, she blared, “BUT I THOUGHT OUR TAFKID WAS LIKE THAT OF THE COHANIM IN THE BEIT HAMIKDASH! HOW CAN HE SAY THAT?!”
Her response made me feel like I had spoken terrible lashon hara about the Kli Yakar.
And I am sure that any woman reading this is into actually understanding what the Kli Yakar actually means and not just having a negatively judgmental (and somewhat heretical) knee-jerk reaction.
But just in case, and because I wish to avoid any cause of revulsion toward such a holy person, I’ll do my best to explain why it seems like such a validating point:
The truth is, there is no contradiction between a woman’s tafkid being as holy as the Kohanic service AND feeling so overwhelmed that it's like her days and nights and weeks run together to the point that she may not feel as if she's really "living.”
I would also like to point out that in the Kli Yakar’s time, the maternal survival of pregnancy and birth were not as much of a given as it is today.
Infant mortality was also much higher then.
This awareness could certainly add to the usual tzaar of pregnancy and birth.
Furthermore, the analogy to the Temple Kohanim can only be taking so far.
Their time of service was very limited (i.e., it did not go on constantly for, say, 20 years).
The Kohanim never needed to drop everything in the middle to go throw up because they were pregnant and the smell of all that roasting meat was making them nauseous.
They never needed to worry about their waters breaking while walking up the Mizbe'ach nor did they need to worry about any of their tasks causing miscarriage.
Nor did they need to complete their tasks using only one arm because a baby was in the other.
In fact, they did not have to engage in any childcare at all while occupied with the korbanot.
And that's the difference.
Feeling overwhelmed by your holy tasks does not mean they aren’t holy.
Sorry if you already know this, but there are many who don't, and maybe that needs to be addressed.
The fact is, in the very normal routine of wifely maternal life, there are certainly times when you feel like you aren't really "living" each day.
(This is also true for medical students on internships.)
Recovering emotionally and physically from birth, sleepless nights due to colicky babies or sick children, constantly running after toddlers to make sure they don’t kill themselves, along with dealing with running the actual home and all that entails, plus a woman’s innate need to make her husband happy and hopefully love her – this can all be overwhelming at times.
Unfortunately, today’s messages to women in this situation can be that she simply needs to develop a better attitude, prioritize better, or that she needs to go on a Shabbaton or hire help – all of which may be true....or may not be true.
And regarding the last two, sometimes those require effort and energy that she just doesn’t have (i.e. all the preparation needed to go away for the weekend and the disorder waiting for her when she comes back, finding competent help and supervising it, etc.).
And even with a good attitude and competent help, the experience can still be overwhelming.
For some of us, it’s just nice to have our tzaar validated.
Yes, there are also very good times and many rewards, and there is the fact that doing so is one of the most important and meaningful missions a woman can carry out.
But it can certainly be overwhelming.
And everyone’s situation is different.
Some people experience more tzaar than others.
Contrary to many Western messages that have crept into the frum world, we cannot always control our lives and it is nice that the Kli Yakar both acknowledges & appreciates this aspect of a woman’s role.
The Sages said that this indicates that Yitzchak Avinu instituted the afternoon prayer, Mincha. The Kli Yakar concurs, but adds another reason, too:
“Another reason that this prayer was said close to sunset was to hint that just before the setting of Sara’s sun [i.e., Sara’s death], Rivka’s sun rose [i.e., Rivka was born].
Therefore, the text informs us that Rivka arrived just before sunset to tell us that before Sara’s sun set, Rivka’s sun had already risen.
This was in order that the world would not lack righteous women [nashim tzidkanyot] who are to the world like the rotation of the Sun [i.e. vital to the world’s existence]….”
(Note: It’s Rabbi Elihu Levine’s excellent translation that appears in this post. It’s a wonderful book with beautifully readable Hebrew and English fonts that include the Torah text, Rashi, and the Kli Yakar in Hebrew alongside Rabbi Levine’s marvelous translation of the Kli Yakar in English. It is footnoted with outside sources and explanations of what the Kli Yakar mentions in his commentary. The Kli Yakar’s style and Rabbi Levine’s translation are also conducive to just sitting down and reading it through. Only Bereishit I (Beresheit – Toldot), Shemot I, and Shemot II are available in English, but I highly recommend them. They’re available at Feldheim and Ohr Hachaim and I don’t know where else. What I post here is only a drop of the beautiful insights and lessons the Kli Yakar presents.)
Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Luntschitz (1550-1619) lived in Bohemia (which is today Poland and Czechoslovakia). He served as rabbi and dayan and wrote several books, the most well-known being his commentary on the Chumash known as the Kli Yakar.