One of my teachers told this story about a trip he and his wife took to Europe. While they were visiting London, it was time for his wife to go to the mikva, and since it was a strange city and they didn’t know the neighborhood, he accompanied her and waited outside. As he stood outside the building, the women who were leaving saw him there and glared at him with angry, dirty looks — and he had no idea why. It was only later that he learned that there was a common folk belief that when a woman became pregnant, her child would look like the first man she saw upon leaving the mikva (presumably her husband when she returned home). And so, my teacher said, “I figure that there are now a whole bunch of nine-year-olds running around London who look just like me.”
This folk belief undoubtedly goes back to the Talmud, where Rabbi Yohanan, who was famous for his incredible physical beauty, is quoted as saying that he would often stand outside the mikva in the evening so that all the women who saw him would give birth to good-looking children.
There’s something akin to this in parshat Vayetze. After Jacob served his uncle Laban for 14 years for his two wives, Leah and Rachel, he wanted to return home. However, Laban prevailed upon him to stay, for he knew that his prosperity was due to his nephew’s efforts. The two men negotiated and agreed on what Jacob would be paid for his continued service.
Jacob said that for his work he would take the dark-colored sheep and the spotted and speckled goats, while Laban would keep the much more numerous white sheep and dark goats. Knowing Laban’s duplicitous nature, Jacob wanted a system that would make it obvious which animals belonged to whom. But true to his nature, as soon as the deal was made, Laban took all the spotted goats and dark sheep and gave them to his sons to pasture far away.
So Jacob took matters into his own hands. The Torah tells us that he took fresh sticks and peeled bark from them to make white streaks, and he placed the sticks where the goats would see them when they came to drink. When the goats mated in front of the sticks, they gave birth to spotted and streaked kids. Similarly, he placed the sheep facing the dark-colored animals in Laban’s flocks so that they would give birth to dark-colored lambs.
Of course, we know that the appearance of offspring is determined by the combination of their parents’ genes, not by what the mother may happen to see when she becomes pregnant. But apparently there was a time when people believed this.
Even so, it’s surprising that the Torah devotes six verses to Jacob’s procedures for producing the animals he wanted. When you consider that the entire creation story is only about 30 verses long, this is a lot of space for an account of ancient methods of livestock breeding. Moreover, Jacob himself clearly sees God’s hand in producing the desired results.
Why do we have this treatise on goat reproduction? Rabbi Yehuda Henkin suggests that the Torah tells us this to teach an important lesson — we are not permitted to simply turn our problems and desires over to God and wait for a miracle without making any effort to help ourselves.
The Torah tells us that Jacob employed whatever natural means he had available, for evidently this was the science of his day. Had he not done anything, but just trusted that God would take care of him, nothing would have happened.
The rabbis teach us that the Sea of Reeds did not split until Nachshon followed God’s command to go forward and jumped in. Or, as the late Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York put it, pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on man.
It is when we — God and human beings — act together that our efforts succeed.