Why Me? Parshat Toldot

I was away this weekend, spending Thanksgiving with family. So, I’m sharing something from the archives on the Torah portion we read this past Shabbat, Parashat Toldot.

This week’s parasha, Toldot, contains one of the fullest accounts we have in the Tanakh of pregnancy and birth.   Like many of those who come before and after them in the Hebrew Bible, Rebecca and Isaac receive a promise from God that they will have a child after an extended period of infertility; unlike most of these other stories, the Torah actually tells us something about Rebecca’s experience of pregnancy and birth.  As we learn, her pregnancy is not an easy one and it leads her to profound questions about her life and how to make sense of her experience.

The Torah tells us: 

וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֶת־ה’׃

It’s actually really difficult to translate this verse directly, but one way might be: 

The children struggled inside of her and she said “if so, why am I?” and she went to inquire of God. 

There are a couple of words and phrases that make this challenging to interpret.  One is the word “vayitrotzezu,” which many commentators understand as meaning the twins were running around inside Rebecca’s womb, which would probably have been physically uncomfortable for her as well as distressing.  The midrash in Bereishit Rabbah teaches that the twins were struggling with one another, even before they were born and that their inherent natures were already established.  The midrash says that whenever Rebecca would pass by a house of Torah study, Jacob would flail around, wanting to be born; and whenever she would pass by a place where idols were worshiped, Esau would move around wanting to be born.  

More difficult to understand is the exact meaning of Rebecca’s question in response to this experience:  lamah zeh anochi?” It seems like a broken cry of distress – Why – this – me? It seems like there are some words missing here.  What does she mean? What is she feeling? 

The rabbinic commentators take note of this verse as well and offer several different readings of Rebecca’s question, which reflect different ways that people may respond to difficult situations.   

In looking closely at Rebecca’s question, the Torah invites us to ask: what does it mean to be a human being who struggles, and what sustains us in these moments of difficulty?

In Rashi’s understanding, Rebecca experienced the struggle of the twins as physically painful and that is what motivates her question.  Rashi says her question is: if the pain of pregnancy is so great, why is it that I longed and prayed to become pregnant?  The physical discomfort and pain of this pregnancy is so significant, that it leads her to question why she even wanted this in the first place. 

Of course it’s hard to know what her tone might have been – was it more of a complaint about the discomforts of pregnancy, even though she was very happy to finally become a mother? Or was she seriously questioning her desire for children? Rashi’s interpretation reflects the ambivalence we often experience – we may want something badly for a long time, and then feel conflicted when it isn’t exactly how we had dreamed it would be.  We might even feel guilty for having less than joyous thoughts about something that we really wanted and may have taken a long time to achieve.  

Ibn Ezra situates Rebecca’s question in a social context.  According to Ibn Ezra, when Rebecca feels the twins chasing each other around inside of her, she decides to do what a lot of expectant parents do and ask her friends who had already had kids:  I’m having this weird experience, these fetuses are running around like crazy inside of me…did you experience anything like this?  And her friends say no.  For Ibn Ezra, Rebecca’s question is: if what my friends are telling me about their experiences is normal, why am I having such a strange pregnancy?  In this reading, Rebecca seeks support from others.  She wants to know if what she’s experiencing is normal, and when others can’t relate to her, she feels isolated.  

Nachmanides, in typical fashion in his commentary, summarizes what both Rashi and Ibn Ezra said, and then offers a different interpretation.  For Nachmanides, Rebecca’s question is much darker.  If this is what is to be my fate, why am I in the world?  I wish that I would die, or that I had never been born.  Her experience is so difficult and painful she is not sure if she can make it through.  She might be experiencing what we might call depression today. 

In fact, this is not the only time in our parasha when Rebecca questions whether she should continue to live.  Toward the end when she wants to convince Isaac to send Jacob away to protect him from Esau, she says: katzti b’chayi – I’ve had enough of my life, because of the Hittite women.  If Jacob, like Esau marries a Hittite woman, lamah li chayim?  Literally, why am I living? Or why should I live?  Here, when she is crying out in her present painful state, it seems like too much to bear and she’s not sure if she can make it through.  What can she do to cope?  

Ultimately, Rebecca is able to go on. The verse tells us that after asking this question, she turns to the the only lifeline she knows: Vatelech lidrosh et Adonai – “She went and inquired of God.”  In this moment of doubt, loneliness, and a questioning of the meaning of her life, Rebecca is able to find some comfort and the strength to go on. The answer she receives from God, concerning the future fate of her children, may not seem to be the most comforting response – but perhaps it is enough.  God validates her feelings of ambivalence and worry about being normal by saying yes, there is something unusual about what you’re experiencing, yes these two children are fighting one another. This is painful and difficult. Your feelings are valid.

The diversity of rabbinic interpretations of Rebecca’s question speaks to the complexity of our experiences – how we may have conflicting feelings about our own experiences, and how the way we experience a situation may be very different from how someone else might respond to the same thing. We might recognize ourselves, or people who are close to us, in Rebecca’s story.  While we may not always feel that we can inquire directly of God and receive an answer, the Torah assures us that we are not alone in our struggles.