Fruits of Our Labor and Delivery

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Upon arriving, Bethlehem’s residents swarmed around Naomi in greeting. “Don’t call me ‘pleasant’ (naomi),” she exclaimed. “Call me Marah, bitter, because HaShem has dealt me a bitter hand.” Just recently, before her trek out to this city, Naomi had lost her husband and her two sons back in Eretz Yisroel and was now completely impoverished. She had only the shirt on her back and the companionship, albeit meaningful and special, of her daughter-in-law Rus.

Interestingly, the main exposition of Megillas Rus lays against the backdrop of the farm: the fields of Bethlehem where Rus began to gather nourishment for home, the crops she picked as Boaz first noticed her, and most notably, the threshing floor where Rus startled Boaz and in an intimate sense, planted the seeds of the Kingship of David. This curious encounter, as vaguely and cryptically depicted in the text, bore her Oved, who became the father of Yishai and eventually the grandfather of David HaMelech.

Megillas Rus is centered on the theme of growth and change, especially in its characters’ circumstances. We see this with the physical impoverishment of Naomi and Rus, as they embark on a new journey as fresh widows with nothing to their name, as they ultimately, and unexpectedly so, become— Naomi in an indirect way—the forbearers of royalty and redemption. The seeds of cold and despair bring forth the roots and blossoms of a warm and hopeful future; a time in which Rus finally bears a child with her new husband, and Naomi, who is not exactly the infant’s Bubby but a close match, finally gets to shep nachas: After all, her involvement with her daughter-in-law, especially when encouraging her to approach Boaz in the middle of the night, created the landscape for the greatest Jewish dynasty of all times.

It is the hard work and suffering of our fathers and mothers that engender our good futures: the post-Holocaust days in a new and foreign country called America, replete with opportunity and freedom, yet laden with the financial burden of being a religious Jew; and the blood and sweat of the first immigrants and generation to settle our Holy Land, in building her infrastructure and agricultural system. If not for the narrowness of our lives and those before us, we would not be in a position to enjoy the good things of today, of tomorrow, of our Geulah.

As Chana sang to HaShem, after she had experienced tremendous suffering, “HaShem has widened (rachav) my heart against my enemies.” Or, as David himself sings, “From the narrowness (hameitzar) of my situation I call to You. He answered me by expanding (bamerchav) my life.” If not for the faith and endurance of our Alter Bubbies and Zaydies who refused to work on Shabbos and who were, in this particularly literary sense, confined in meitzarim to only work during the week; if not for the faith and endurance of our grandparents who were shoved into cattle cars, one on top of another with no space to breathe or bow to G-d, we wouldn’t be where we are today and maybe we wouldn’t even be here at all. The Nazis’ physical and mental imprisonment of our ancestors motivated them to take the greatest revenge and expand our people and propagate. They chose life over death—another major theme in Megillas Rus—in proving our Jewish unstoppability through both normal and devastating times.

During our best historical times as a people, that is, the days of the First and Second Temples, the Jewish people gathered and crowded together in the sanctuary, during the Three Festivals, as the Gemara recounts (Yoma 21a), to sing HaShem’s praises. When they all bowed in submission to and acknowledgement of HaShem’s all-encompassing reign over our lives, miraculously the place expanded, and each person—man and woman—was able to properly bow before Him in a strong sense of awe and devotion. In this light, it is the belief in G-d and the Divine plan, in addition to our adherence to His words, no matter how difficult they might be to achieve, which allow for the next chapter of our lives and those of our kids.

Our Sages call this concept, especially towards the end of days, as we near the Hebrew year 6000, “Chevlei Mashiach,” the labor pains of our People as the arrival of our Davidic Savior is imminent. The anguish of our Nation, although unbearable, is not for naught; it is to prepare and enable the most beautiful, utopic experience to come.

The agony of a birthing mother is like no other kind of pain; yet, unlike no other kind of pain, it, once over, ushers in an immediate and joyous reality, an unbelievable rejuvenation of sorts. As David HaMelech himself writes in his poems of suffering and faith: “Those who plant in tears will harvest in celebration.” After all, he is the great grandson of a woman who triumphed her pain and transformed her life, deprived of any comfort or joy, into something great. This familial bond is both deliberate and meaningful.

In Psalm 22, David cries once again, relating how “G-d drew me from my mother’s womb and laid me on her breasts.” In this chapter, like many of his other psalms, he speaks of faith (bitachon), rejuvenation, and overcoming tremendous suffering. Throughout the text, one detects a specific imagery of growth as depicted by his poetic language: the worthlessness of a worm, the dust of death, plowed strength, eating and being satiated, and the seed and threshing of Israel. Many commentaries say that this psalm was actually said by Queen Esther before she entered Achashverosh’s chambers, trembling as she awaited her fate.

Rus, Esther, Miriam and other women of Biblical times represented strength when the rest of our people were weak; they prophesied hope and light in a time of darkness and despair; and symbolized the fruits of having an impenetrable Emunah. In fact, Esther’s name, as the Midrash notes, is derived from the verse in Deuteronomy, “I will hide My face at that time,” connoting a period when G-d does not seem present in our lives and the Shechinah is ostensibly hidden. Miriam’s name is comprised of the words mar yam, bitter waters; and Rus originates from the word rivahu, as her descendant David saturated G-d with praise. These women were not only the heroines of different periods throughout our ancient history, they were honored with the title Prophetess, as were four others, namely Chana who also endured an imaginable reality of watching all her seven Kohanic sons being tortured to death by Antiochus. Yet her bitachon and devotion to G-d and his commandments remained untouched. In this vein, the Seven Prophetesses were not only blessed with a certain clairvoyance to deserve such a title, they possessed a unique ability to believe and hope during the darkest moments of our people.

In the Biblical story that we read on Shavuos, Boaz himself was a morally strong and honorable man (ish gibur chayil), whose first words, upon being frightened in the middle of the night by Rus, were Bless you, my daughter, when he had every right to curse her for the intrusive fright she induced (Bereishis Rabbah). The Midrash compares Boaz to Yitzchak who also trembled, both of whom believed in G-d and responded as men of G-d. That is, it takes a person of faith to express blessing in a circumstance of fear, as this Midrashic source, regarding Boaz’s behavior, references the verse from Mishlei, “The trembling of a person creates for him a snare; yet one who believes [in G-d] will be exalted.” These timeless words were written by the great, great grandson of the protagonist of Shavuos, King David, the progeny of a woman who believed.

This Judaic theme, throughout Tanach and modern Jewish history, of suffering and survival, and even thriving, we can all find in the winnowing of our own stories, as we separate the meaning from a dry series of events, and as faith, if it is strong enough, holds us together in withstanding pain for a greater cause.

In this token, on a personal note, my husband Chaim and I recently had a baby girl, whom we named Miriam Bracha, after our two relatives and with the inherent idea of how it is a blessing, or Bracha, to see the sweet within the bitter (Miriam), even if the good is long due and yet to come. As our Sages proclaim, G-d precedes injury with healing. Before we even experience our pain, HaShem already has the antidote prepared. We just have to look for that Divine pharmacy and pick up our prescription.

My own life story bespeaks of this theme and the need to have emunah in HaShem’s ultimate good even if we do not see it easily or at all. In the heart of Covid’s days, the birth of my first child was traumatic to him, to me, and to our family: I had gone through over twenty-four hours of labor with no results, and at the final hour when my son’s heart rate was declining significantly, the staff hurriedly wheeled me into the operating room for an emergency C-section. Baruch HaShem, we both survived the delivery, albeit with water in my lungs and my son’s inability to breathe on his own. After a full day in the recovery room, we were rushed overnight to LIJ since the doctors feared that my son would need to be put on life support and the current hospital I was in did not have an Ecmo machine.

Once at LIJ, as I was beginning to recover from my own physical and emotional trauma, the phenomenally caring team of neonatologists gave my son a thirty percent chance to survive. Our family davened day in and day out for this precious little boy. Every day, once I was discharged and was healing from my surgery, I drove to Manhasset from my parents’ home to sit by his crib full of wires and tubes, almost like a snare of some sort, and look into his covered eyes and whisper into his covered ears that I believed in him. The team had told me to keep pumping because even one drop of the colostrum from a mother can be so healing. Finally, after I froze several bags of milk in the hospital storage, they were medically able to give him a Q-tip of colostrum into his mouth to suck on. I think in some way, he knew I was by his side, waiting and watching and feeding him what I could.

Gradually, we began to see some changes. Our prayers and faith in a G-d reigning above the rules of nature seemed to prevail. Finally, as my son was connected to less machines and medications, the nurse allowed me to hold him in my arms, which was the second time I was able to since I gave birth to him.

Baruch HaShem, my family’s NICU story had a wonderful ending, and the Divine messenger, whom we originally named Dr. Grimm, said before wishing us farewell that this is the kind of stuff they live for at Cohen’s Children’s. To show his undoubted hakaras hatov, even til this day, to the doctor who helped my son live, every year my father makes a point to send Dr. Grimm a picture of my son on his birthday. (I never actually considered renaming Dr. Grimm when recounting HaShem’s nissim to others maybe because on some subconscious level, I like the irony of the name and the unexpectedly good fate that it belies.) The healing of my son Shlomo Zalman was certainly a story of pain and blessing that I will never forget.

Years later, when I had my medical records transferred to New Jersey, where I currently live, my previous obstetrician who—as one of the few solo practitioners in New York, delivers probably one thousand babies a year if not more—had the nurse personally call me to see how Shlomo Zalman was doing and to say what a miracle he was. In response I sent her an email of before and after pictures, of my newborn infant hooked up to several machines with a feeding tube, CPAP and ventilator, beside a picture of him flying happily and healthfully in a bucket swing in our sunny neighborhood park—all “upsherined” and with a glowing smile—as I captioned the picture with the verse from Psalms, “Hodu la-HaShem ki tov.”

Baruch HaShem, this time around with a new labor and delivery, I had a different mazel altogether. HaShem had rachmanus on me, and I quickly experienced the pain and beauty of an easy delivery. My husband was actually saying Psalm 22 in the room at the time and came across David’s words Ki ata gochi mi-baten, mavtichi al shdei imi. For He had drawn me out of the womb and laid me on my mother’s bosom. A few minutes later, not more, HaShem gifted me with what we all yearn for—the greatest joy after such a long suffering. Afterwards, my husband told the non-Jewish delivery team of these Biblical words, and they seemed impressed with the coincidence and timing of these prayers. Interestingly, the word mavtichi, and He laid me or comforted me, has the root word batach, security or more loosely, “faith”—which is repeated three more times in different forms throughout the Psalm. It’s our belief and endurance that can bring us out of our constricting pain.

Ultimately, it will be our prayers and belief in HaShem’s goodness that will usher in Mashiach, the heroic descendant of individuals who believed and persevered. As Psalm 22 comes to a close, David cries of the labor pains of his own life and that of Klal Yisrael. In the same breath, he also sings of recognizing HaShem’s hidden blessings for His am nolad, or “newborn nation.” Here, King David is referencing a time when we will clearly see the Ultimate transition from the contractions and meitzarim of a difficult Galus to the warmth and pride of an expansive Geulah—the unquestionable, strong embrace of our maternal Shechinah.

About the Author
Este Stollman is a Yeshiva English teacher and has a Master of Arts in Jewish History from Touro Graduate School of Jewish Studies. She has a small sushi-making party business and lives in Lakewood, NJ with her husband and children.
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