Unlike Abraham and Sarah who were resigned to being childless though enormously grateful to become parents, Isaac and Rebecca actively sought to overcome infertility. The Torah describes how Isaac prayed for his wife to become pregnant (Genesis 25:21), an act that Abraham did not perform despite his reliance on the efficacy of prayer to overcome the infertility of the wives and household of Avimelekh, king of Gerar (Genesis 20:17). Isaac’s prayer is a striking change in attitude towards becoming parents. Beforehand children were considered a divine gift: welcomed when they arrived but unexpected. With Isaac children are now expected (thus the quaint word “expecting” for pregnancy).
Being thrust into the roles of parents by circumstance is one thing. But actively pursuing parenthood is quite another. Parenthood requires an enormous expenditure of financial and emotional resources. Parenthood limits personal freedom. (“I’d love to go out to dinner and a movie but I can’t,” said the comedian Gallagher as he threw an anchor on the stage. “I have a baby.”) Parenthood demands sacrifice. Volunteering for parenthood is a profound development in human history. It signals a willingness to take on responsibility rather than avoid it. In essence, it is the entire Torah in microcosm.
Chapter 30 of the Book of Numbers outlines the laws of vows. Vows are affirmed to either take on additional responsibilities or to pledge to abstain from doing or enjoying something that was perfectly acceptable. In either case, vows impose additional duties on the person who makes them. In his commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of neo-Orthodoxy, refers to the institution of vows as “voluntary legislation.” He goes on to explain that society is strengthened when people go beyond the necessary and dare to do what is exceptional.
The desire for children is one of many indications that the Torah uses the lives of the patriarchs to show us the way to better living. (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin explains that the Book of Genesis itself is alternately called the Book of the Righteous because of the exceptional examples the patriarchs serve.) Finding ways in our lives to take on more rather than do less is the way we live under the influence of our earliest ancestors.