Shaya Cohen -


Filling the World

My study partners and I were curious about why, when Tamar is pregnant with twins, the verse starts with, “when her time came to give birth,” but when Rivkah is pregnant with Esau and Jacob, the text is different: “when her days were full to give birth.” They are parallel cases, but for some reason Rivkah’s verse uses the somewhat poetic expression instead of merely saying “it was time.” Which, of course, prompts the question: what we are supposed to learn from the different language which seems to make the same point?

One answer (we have others as well) can be teased out of the text if we examine a key word in the phrase: maleh, meaning “fill” or “complete.” We approach this in the same way we do any textual analysis: by looking at how the specific word is used elsewhere in the Torah.

The Torah starts with maleh, “fill,” in a straightforward meaning: The Torah tells us that G-d wants life to populate the world: fish are instructed to fill the seas, and man to fill the earth. But, as the text tells us not long after, man does more than merely procreate and fill the world: man in turn fills the whole world with power-centric “might makes right” behavior (the Hebrew word used is Hamas, explained here).  And then G-d repeats the expression, specifically saying that he will destroy the world:

God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with hamas because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.”

It seems that G-d’s initial desire that we fill the world was fulfilled – but not entirely for the good. While animals and mankind physically reproduced and populated the world, it was not spiritually positive overall. In terms of our actions, we filled the world with negative elements instead of positive ones! So the first draft of the world failed, and G-d declared it a failure and started all over.

Indeed, after the Flood, G-d tries again:

God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth.”

And this time, the word has positive spiritual content as well as physical. The word maleh, fill, is repeatedly (and positively) connected to drawing out water from wells: maleh is connected to people coming together around the well, and the use of water to sustain life. Water in the Torah is compared, by Bilaam, to the Jewish people spiritually watering the world.  

But the real core of the connection is to Jacob. He has to “fill” his years of service to earn his wives – showing a willingness for hard work and long-term planning in pursuit of relationships.  Jacob later decrees that his descendants will “fill the nations” (Gen. 48:19), which surely is intended not as a demographic prediction, but one of the influence of Torah ideas and ideals. Indeed, Jacob is connected to this word maleh more than anyone else in the text, suggesting that when G-d initially ordered man to “be fruitful and multiply” Jacob, with his twelve sons, was both the biological and spiritual realization of G-d’s ambition.

Jacob’s role is uniquely connected to the concept of filling the world in a spiritual sense: One specific word form of “fill”, וַיִּמְלְא֥וּ, is only found in four places in the entire Torah. They are:

 When her days were full (וַיִּמְלְא֥וּ) to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb.

(At the birth of Jacob)

Then Joseph gave orders to fill (וַיִּמְלְא֥וּ) their bags with grain, return each one’s money to his sack, and give them provisions for the journey.

(Sustaining food for Jacob’s family)

It required forty days, for such is the full (וַיִּמְלְא֥וּ) period of embalming. The Egyptians bewailed him seventy days

(The death of Israel (Jacob))

They filled (וַיִּמְלְא֥וּ) in it four rows of stones

The breastplate naming and connecting to the 12 sons of Israel (Jacob):

Connect them together: These four examples are the entire lifecycle of Jacob as it relates to the world: Jacob’s birth; Jacob’s life; Jacob/Israel’s death, and Israel’s eternal legacy to the world through his children and their connection to G-d (through the High Priest’s breastplate which delineates the twelve tribes).

The breastplate has stones in “four rows.” The number “four” itself represents, as I have written elsewhere, the connection to rebirth, the ability to completely change a person or, in the case of the Flood or Sinai, the whole world. That is the legacy of Jacob/Israel: to transform the world.

So the initial commandment from G-d to “fill the world” bears fruit with Jacob – not in a physical sense, but in a spiritual one. Jacob’s life and death represents the next stage of G-d’s people spiritually filling the world.  The rest, as they say, is up to us.

[an @iwe, @blessedblacksmith, @susanquinn and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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