We don’t know how pregnant Rivka was at the beginning of this week’s parsha, but judging from how I’ve been feeling, I would guess she was at least five months along. Just a few weeks ago I started feeling the babies kicking for the first time, and this week, I was able to detect two distinctive patterns of fetal movement. The doctor has told me that one baby is on top and one on the bottom, and I am beginning to get to know them both. The one on top gives sudden, jolting kicks just to the right of my navel, as if leveling a blow at an imaginary opponent; when this baby moves, my whole stomach protrudes and the motion is visible even through my clothing. The baby on the bottom doesn’t so much kick as undulate, fluttering around just above my pelvic bone in a gentle, rhythmic dance. I wouldn’t say that the two wombmates are struggling with one another, but much like Rivka, I find myself preoccupied with my own interiority and wondering, “What is this self I have become?”
As Avivah Zornberg points out, Rivka’s name is an anagram of Kirbah, that interior space where the babies struggled: “And the babies struggled inside her (b’kirbah).” When pregnant with twins, Rivka’s very identity was jumbled inside her, to the extent that she could no longer recognize herself: “If so, why I?” she asks in a moment of existential doubt. Unlike me, Rivka did not have the advantage of modern ultrasound technology, nor did she have an entire shelf of books to tell her what to expect when she was expecting. She didn’t receive weekly emails from BabyCenter comparing her baby’s size to various fruits and vegetables and informing her of the various stages of development: Week One: Your baby is the size of a lentil! Week Two: Your baby now has heels! Week Three: Your baby is covered in a soft coating of hair! Instead, God had to serve as her ultrasound and her sounding board, illuminating the reason for her distress and discomfort: “Two nations are in your womb. Two separate people shall issue from your body.” And indeed, as we are told in the very next verse, so it came to pass.
Rivka is not the only woman in our tradition to suffer during a twin pregnancy. The Talmud (Yevamot 65b) relates that Yehudit, the wife of Rabbi Hiya, gave birth to twin sons born two months apart; the first one came out at 32 weeks! Poor Yehudit went into labor twice, and had to spend her eighth and ninth month of pregnancy caring for a newborn, presumably while on bedrest. Traumatized by the experience, she tried to prevent herself from ever becoming pregnant again. She disguised herself and came before her husband, a story reminiscent of Jacob disguising himself as Esau as per Rivka’s instructions. “Is a woman obligated in the mitzvah of procreation,” she asked him. Her husband responded no. She then drank a drug to make her barren, an act we might interpret as stealing the birthright, or at least as stealing the right to give birth. Rabbi Hiya then got wind of the matter and cried forth in great distress upon realizing that he had been tricked. If his wife was to birth him no more sons, what blessing could possibly be left for him? “I wish you would give birth to another bellyful,” he blessed his wife, and so she did – although this time, they were girls. Thus Hiya and Yehudit were the parents of two sets of twins: First Yehuda and Hizkiya, and then Pazi and Tavi.
I, for one, shall be more than happy if this one set of twins comes out safely and healthily, and hopefully not months apart from one another. I’m not sure if the one on top or the one on the bottom will make its way out first, especially since I am due on Purim, the holiday of v’nahafoch hu, in which everything is turned upside down. My goal is just to make it as close to 40 weeks (and as close to the end of Masekhet Shabbat) as possible, hopefully while remaining ambulatory. This in itself would be a miracle, as the Talmud teaches:”Come and see that the attributes of the Holy One are not like the attributes of man. A man puts an object in a container with the opening facing downward, and it may or may not be preserved inside the container. But God shapes the fetus in the womb of an open woman, with the opening facing down, and the fetus is preserved” (Niddah 31a). I hope the babies are comfortable in their upper and lower berths, folded up like writing tablets with candles burning atop their heads as they peer from one end of the world to the other (Niddah 30b) and as they study Masekhet Shabbat with me each morning. We still have 110 pages left, so while the twins are free to keep kicking, I hope that neither one has any intention of emerging any time soon.