Judah: an excerpt from ‘The Sons of Israel’

My name is Praise.

My mother thought my birth would kill her. Maybe a part of her even hoped that it would. What had she to resent? Nothing at all. The victorious of two warring sisters, blessing followed her in everything. She had a strong husband who came consistently to her tent and three vibrant, healthy sons to show for it.

But my mother was tired. She had earned everything she had by right and by might; she was the sister to whom honor was due, but, dwarfed by Rachel’s meaningless beauty, she was forced to surpass the younger in every other way. The two were even. Israel ignored Leah’s dullness but praised her hardworking spirit and fertile womb. He adored Rachel’s sweet femininity but ignored her sloth, selfishness and barrenness.

There was a way that the race was uneven, though; it had tried my mother to exhaustion while Rachel lounged. Now, in childbed for a fourth time, she recognized futility. She’s told me the story time and again:

“I thought that my womb had closed with you inside. I convulsed with each pain. I had never, with three sons, felt such agony. Each of your older brothers took less than a day to come into the light. With you, I decided to die at a day and a half.

“I decided I’d never see Israel again, and I didn’t care. I would never see my sons again, and I accepted that. My only regret, Praise, was that I wouldn’t see you a single time. Not once. But with that pain under my heart, I lay back on the childbed and closed my eyes.

“My pain was cut in half. Something in my body stopped working, and for hours I lay there unable to move or speak. At first my midwife thought I had died. She stopped working, but then she saw my breath. She continued to help my womb do its work while I lay there half-dead. I don’t remember anything for days after that, but when I awoke, I had a healthy son – the biggest one I’d borne yet – and a flush in my cheeks again. El took half of my life, long enough to give me you, and then breathed it back into me so I could know you, love you, and tell you the miracle of your birth. I named you that day, saying, ‘This time, I will Praise the Lord.’”

My mother thought my birth would kill her, and even though no one has said it, today everyone thinks this birth will kill Rachel. Tomorrow, though, whether both Rachel and her son are breathing, or just one of them, or neither – I will praise the Lord.

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