Why, then, am I? Parashat Toldot 2019

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Parashat Toldot (5780 – 2019)
Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Our Torah portion picks up some twenty years after last week’s story. Isaac and Rebecca have been married for twenty years, but they are still childless. After Isaac entreats God on his wife’s behalf, she conceives. But Rebecca’s pregnancy is painful, torn by turmoil within. “And she said, ‘If it is thus, then why am I?’ and she went to seek out the Eternal.” (Gen. 25:22) The next verse tells us that God answered her and explained why she felt such strife within her womb.

The opening verses of this portion present us with a remarkable juxtaposition of two people reaching out to God. Isaac is described as praying to God and God is portrayed as acceding to Isaac’s prayer. But Rebecca’s actions are less clearly described. She went “to seek the Eternal.” Where did she go? What form did her seeking take?

Most commentators interpret this to mean that she sought out an oracle – some expert who was believed to have a connection to God, situated perhaps at a shrine. This is an intriguing possibility, for it hints at a developed religious culture comprised of shrines and religious functionaries. But such an oracle – place or person – is not mentioned. And we are pretty convinced that we are meant to appreciate that Isaac and Rebecca live in religious and spiritual isolation within their area. (After all, Abraham had insisted that no proper wife could be found in all of Canaan, and this will be Rebecca’s opinion later, as well.) Moreover, God’s answer is not presented as a prophetic pronouncement delivered by the oracle. “God said to her…” (v. 23) is the way God’s response is communicated, implying that God spoke directly to Rebecca!

So perhaps Rebecca’s God-seeking is meant to be understood as a personal and isolated experience. There was no other place identified with the God she revered except her own tent. There was no one else identified as God’s emissary except her own husband (and the very old Abraham). Yet, apparently, she does not go and consult Isaac or her father-in-law. Why? One possibility is that she could not get the right kind of answer from them. After the test that Abraham and Isaac endured, it may have been clear to them that one must accept a Divine test without question.

But there is more. Abraham had asked God how he would know that God’s promises would come true. And he had asked God to reconsider God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaac had asked Abraham where the animal was for the sacrifice. And Isaac had asked God for a child. So they both knew about asking questions. Yet, Rebecca’s question was a new type of question. Rebecca understood the importance of her own isolation. Her question is forcefully worded in the best “existential” way – “Why, then, am I?” – comprehending that her pain was her own mystery to confront and unravel. She understood two things, then: that her suffering was a personal challenge to be met by her alone, and that the solution had to lie with God, Whom she must personally seek.

So, paradoxically, because Rebecca could not go to either Isaac or Abraham with her question, she was, in a sense, taking one more step toward becoming, even more than Isaac, Abraham’s true heir. She was the one, not Isaac, who, like Abraham, had to leave her family and homeland in order to come to the Promised Land and continue Abraham’s mission. And now she is recapitulating another experience that Abraham knew only too well. Isaac, as Abraham’s son, received God as a ready inheritance. But Rebecca, Bethuel’s daughter and Lavan’s sister (v. 20), was not the heir of such spiritual patrimony. She had to seek out God on her own, and, in doing so, she was doing exactly what Abraham was forced to do at the very beginning of his spiritual journey. But Abraham’s original, lonely spiritual seeking – before God ever speaks to him – is not mentioned in the Torah. Rebecca’s search is mentioned because it is necessary to establish her as the next Abraham figure. After Abraham’s death it was she, not Isaac, who would direct the continuation of Abraham’s blessing to the next generation. In a radical overturning of gender roles, the Torah establishes that Isaac was the vehicle of blessing, but Rebecca was the active agent of the blessing.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Greenstein

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Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein arrived at Shomrei Emunah in August 2009 with a rich, broad and deep background as a rabbi, cantor, artist, scholar, and teacher. Being Shomrei’s rabbi, he says, allows him to draw on all of these passions, as well as his lifelong commitment to building Jewish communities.
Rabbi David Greenstein

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