This week’s parasha is Toldot (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9).
After years of infertility, Isaac beseeches God on behalf of Rebecca and she conceives. A happy thing, no? Not entirely. Perhaps initially she and Isaac share the joy of a first pregnancy (I remember ours so well), but as things progress, the pregnancy causes her tremendous discomfort. It appears that she is having twins; but the twins are fighting inside her, causing Rebecca pain, both physical and emotional. In her pain she utters the words “Lama zeh anochi”, which literally mean “Why this I?”
“Why, this, I?” The ambiguity of these words leaves room for interpretation. One of the earliest readings of this phrase is found in Midrash Beresheet Rabba, the Great Interpretation of Genesis (63:6). There, Rabbi Yitzchak, as cited by Rabbi Haggia, teaches that Rebecca went from house to house and asked the women “Did you suffer so much when you were pregnant or it is just me? If the pain of having children is so great, I wish I had never become pregnant!” Going even further, Rav Huna says that Rebecca wishes that she had never been born.
Personally, I think that her “Lama zeh anochi – Why this I?” is simply a spontaneous outcry, grammar and coherence garbled by pain, expressing the primal scream “WHY ME?”
“Why me?” will be Rebecca’s initial response, but it will not be her last.
There are three types of responses to pain, trouble, disappointment, and all the unwanted and undeserved things that happen to us and to our dear ones.
The first response is “Why me?” “This isn’t fair! I’m a good person – I don’t deserve what is happening to me. My [fill in the blank] did not deserve what happened to her/him! If God could do this, I can’t believe in God anymore!” (Of course, if one believes that God has done this, one first has to believe that there is indeed a God, albeit a not very nice God.)
“Why me?” is the response of anger.
The second response is “Why NOT me?” “This isn’t fair, but who said the world is fair? That’s just the way things are. It is what it is. Sometimes good comes our way that we didn’t earn or deserve, and sometimes we are hit with undeserved bad. ‘Stuff’ happens.'” Rabbi Akiva taught that one should say a blessing over both the good and the bad. Both are part of life.
“Why NOT me?” is the response of acceptance.
The third response is “What now?” “How do I respond to what has happened in life-affirming ways? What do I have to do to carry on? Is there a way to fix this; and if not, how can I bring purpose and meaning to that which seems meaningless? Will enduring my suffering bring me later to joy? How do I create a “new normal” while finding a place in my heart to put the pain, so that it does not remain a forever burden?”
In our saga, God responds to Rebecca’s cry by telling her that in her womb are two nations, both destined for greatness. The older will serve the younger, but with time, he will shake off his brother’s yoke. All of a sudden, Rebecca’s “Why me?” turns into a “What now?” Her suffering will not go away, but it will have been for a purpose. From that moment on, her life will be dedicated to nurturing, protecting, and advancing the younger one, knowing that he was the one designated by God. Great is her pain now, but later, it will have been worth it.
“What now?” is the response of hope.
Hope is not the naïve belief that bad things will go away and that everything will work out in the end, la di da. Hope, according to Dr. Sherwin Nuland, is the understanding that there is something out there in the future that will make it worth enduring the suffering in the present. Hope, according to Dr. Victor Frankl, is the conviction that your life has a purpose yet to be fulfilled. And I learned from Rev. Robert Voyle that hope is the knowledge that, whatever may come, you will have the resources to respond in life-affirming ways.
However we understand it, the Jew lives with hope!