May 17, 2013
One lovely spring day, six months into my pregnancy, I sat outside eating sushi on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. One of my unknown neighbors in this city of millions marched up and informed me that pregnant women should not eat sushi. I smiled, thanked her for her concern and put down my chopsticks until she had rounded the corner. I was calm when I resumed enjoying my spicy tuna rolls because by the end of my second trimester I had learned that pregnancy is a time filled with unsolicited advice, a point made abundantly clear also to the protagonist of this week's Haftarah.
No sooner does the Haftarah introduce the wife of Manoah than an angel of the Lord appears to her and says, "You are barren and have borne no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son. Now be careful not to drink wine or other intoxicant, or to eat anything impure." Unlike Hannah or Rachel or the other famous once-barren women of the Tanakh, Manoah's unnamed wife has not prayed to conceive, beseeched her husband to pray on her behalf or even bemoaned that she is barren. Yet, the angel of the Lord pops in with an announcement and offers some unsolicited advice while he is at it.
Like pregnant women today, the wife of Manoah is ordered not to drink any alcohol. Like pregnant women today, the wife of Manoah is ordered not to eat any impure foods. In our time, the list of "impure" foods during pregnancy is seemingly endless, covering everything from sushi to cold cuts to hard cheeses to French fries. For Manoah's wife, according to Rashi, anything prohibited to a nazir, someone who has taken a temporary vow to the Lord, is off-limits to her.
All these rules. But neither for pregnant women today nor for the wife of Manoah does following all these rules guarantee a good outcome. So many things can go wrong during pregnancy (with or without sushi), and the challenges of raising a child to a productive and meaningful adulthood are overwhelming.
As for Manoah's wife, she was terrified by the angel of the Lord. I'll bet her obedience to the angel's instructions was total, without wine or even a whiff of impure foods during her pregnancy. The Haftarah concludes by telling us, "The woman bore a son, and she named him Samson. The boy grew up, and the Lord blessed him." She had a successful pregnancy, and her son was blessed by God.
Yet, as we learn later in the Book of Judges, Samson did not turn out so well. He had superhuman strength but abysmal impulse control. Tricked by his first wife and her Philistine countrymen, Samson leaves his wedding feast enraged, killing thirty men. Angry that she later married one of his companions, Samson sets fire to the produce of the Philistines. Finally, seeking revenge against the Philistines who had blinded him, Samson pulls down their temple in a suicidal and homicidal fury. That his mother received advice directly from an angel of the Lord and then followed this advice did Samson no good.
There are lots of lessons in this reading of the Haftarah and the Samson cycle. For pregnant women, one of the lessons is that advice, no matter how seemingly authoritative the source, is just that - only advice. It might not be good advice, and it certainly is not a guarantee. For parents, it's a reminder that character development is an essential, if challenging, part of raising a child. For bystanders to pregnancy, whether as a friend, rabbi or grandfather-to-be, we learn that there is low value to unsolicited advice. We would do better to offer support. Imagine if the angel of the Lord had said to the wife of Manoah, "You are barren and have borne no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son. I will do everything in my power to get you mint chocolate chip ice cream at any time, day or night, for your entire pregnancy."
This week's Haftarah commentary was written by
Rabbi Catharine Clark. Rabbi Clark is a 2012 graduate of the rabbinical school at JTS and the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Shalom in London, Ontario. Her 2-year-old daughter Naomi thrives, despite gestational consumption of sushi. Her husband, Eric Robinson, is the program director at the London JCC, and he did everything in his power to get her mint chocolate chip ice cream at any time, day or night, for her entire pregnancy.
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