Parshat Toldot

FRIDAY, November 17th

Last week, we read about our ancestor Rebecca’s holy chutzpah in taking initiative and defying expectations. This week, we encounter a different aspect of her personality, her apparent susceptibility to despair. Twice in Parshas Toldos she seems to express despair over her situation. At the beginning of the parsha, when her long hoped-for pregnancy proves to be difficulty, she says “Im kein, lamah zeh anochi—If this is how it is, why do I exist?” Later, near the end of the Parsha, speaking to her husband Yitzhak, she says that if Jacob marries one of the local Hittite women “Lama li chayim—why do I have life?”

There are at least two ways to read these expressions. One is that they show us that Rivkah was simply in despair, perhaps even feeling suicidal, over her circumstances, wondering whether its worth it to even go on: “why do I have life? Why do I exist?” This would be more than understandable. I could imagine that after trying for years to become pregnant, when the thing she’d wanted more than anything else turns out to be incredibly painful and difficult, it could be a crushing experience. Similarly, contemplating the idea that not just one but both of her sons would marry into the local culture and assimilate into its way of life, might prompt feelings of despair.

This may be the peshat, the most straightforward read of Rivkah’s words. There is another way to read them, however. When faced with challenges, when the reality of her life turns out to be quite different from her dreams, perhaps Rivkah is not expressing suicidal despair, but is seriously reevaluating her assumptions about her purpose in this world. I thought all I wanted was to be pregnant. Now I’m pregnant and it’s pretty miserable. What does that mean for how I understand my purpose and my role in this world? Perhaps I need to reconsider some of my assumptions. Similarly, at the end of the parsha, she is challenged to ask herself, if things don’t turn out as I’d hoped for my sons, how do I understand my purpose here. What is is my life for, if not to raise these boys? Lama Li Chayim?

Perhaps there are shades of both of these reads in Rivkah’s words. The experience of despair may not be very far from the experience of transforming our self-conception. When things in our lives are not working out the way we’d hoped they would, we can ask “lama zeh anochi–why do I exist” in despair, wondering if it wouldn’t be better to be dead. Or we can ask “lama zeh anochi” out of real curiosity, out of an open-hearted desire to better understand the purpose of our existence.

May we have the blessing to greet the most challenging crises in our life, not as occasions for despair, but as moments for self-reflection, reevaluation, and a deepening of our understanding of ourselves and God.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein