Yesterday I went for a morning jog and tripped on the cobblestones of Derekh Hevron. This is not the first time I have had a bad fall while running—the sidewalks of Jerusalem are notoriously ill-kept, even though, as we learn in Masekhet Ketubot (112a), Rabbi Hanina repaired the roads of Israel when he arrived from Babylonia. (He started in Akko. Perhaps he didn’t make it this far south). I have fallen many times before, but never while pregnant. It was for this reason that when a few concerned pedestrians rushed to my aid, I found myself scared to get up. “I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine,” I assured them, remaining hunched over lest they catch sight of my gravid belly. I have learned, over the past few months, that pregnancy is not a personal affair in this city. Everyone—both men and women, those who have had children and those who have not—feels at liberty to offer hectoring advice. The last thing I wanted was to be rebuked: “How can you run when you’re pregnant? You are endangering your unborn child!” And so I waited until everyone had dispersed before lifting myself up, brushing off my bloody knees, and continuing on my way.
I ran the full length of Derekh Hevron, and then came home to clean off. The soap stung on my open wounds, so I took advantage of the opportunity to practice the pain-management techniques we’ve learned in our childbirth class. I exhaled strongly through my mouth, shaping my lips in alternate configurations: “Hee hoo, hee hoo, hee hoo.” Our teacher told us to come up with a mantra to repeat when the pain gets very intense. Though I’m not pregnant with twins, the words that always come to mind are Rivka’s cry to God: “אם כן, למה זה אנוכי?” And if so, why do I exist? Rivka feels the struggle of unknown forces inside her and questions her very existence. Avivah Zornberg points out that Rivka’s name is an anagram of “Kirbah,” the interior space in which the babies struggle in Genesis 25:22: “The children struggled within her (b’kirbah).” Her womb becomes a scrambled version of her name, confounding her sense of identity.
I relate to Rivka’s confusion about the boundaries of her own identity when I feel the baby moving inside me. Suddenly I am more than just myself. This raises a host of ethical questions. Am I responsible for eating and sleeping healthily because my habits directly impact another creature? Are there new limits to my autonomy because of the alien being I am hosting inside? Take today, for instance, when I walked the 50 minutes from Baka to Meah Shearim while reading a novel. It is true that reading while walking entails certain risks: I might trip, or bump into someone, or fail to take note of a red light. These are risks that I’ve always been willing to take; it seems worth it, for the sake of all the pages I manage to read while in transit. But now that have a baby b’Kirbi, I am not so sure. I think about the opening of Masekhet Bava Kama (4a), where we are told, “אדם – שמירת גופו עליו הוא.” A person is responsible for guarding his own body from harming others. In the past, I have always interpreted this statement to mean that given my clumsiness and obliviousness, I should never carry an umbrella, or ride a bicycle, or drive a car – all of these activities extend the radius of the space for which I am responsible, with the risk that I might poke out someone’s eyes, or run over a hapless pedestrian. I always imagined that any potential damage would be outward, projected into the world with which I come into contact. Now, bestirred by a profound sense of my own inhabited interiority, I realize that this damage might also be inward. If I walk into a pole while reading and walking, it is not simply a matter between me and the pole, but between me and my unborn child.
If I am honest with myself, I recognize that part of the reason I am compelled to jog regularly and to read while walking is because I am uncomfortable with the notion of sitting still. I have a hard time doing nothing – the day is short, and the work great. If I ever find myself standing in line at the post office without a book to read, I go crazy; how can I just wait there, watching the minutes tick away? To some extent, pregnancy has enabled me to overcome some of this compulsiveness about using time to the fullest. When I feel the baby moving, I remember that even when I am doing nothing productive or creative, something is being produced and created within. This was a profound realization, as well as a spiritual one. When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, they questioned God: “Is God in our midst (b’kirbeinu – in our Kirbah), or not?” Of course, God longs for nothing more than to dwell inside the people: “They shall build Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell inside them.” It is paradoxically in those moments when I am most still that the baby inside me becomes most active, asserting its presence with powerful kicks and thrusts. In those rare moments of rest, when I stop relentlessly achieving and pursuing, I feel a sense of divine indwelling. I realize that it is not I alone—and not I and my husband alone—who are responsible for the creation of this child, who we pray will emerge into the world and render the image of God yet more manifest.