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Toledot 5776-2015

“Rebecca Inquires of G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we learn of the births of Jacob and Esau.

Isaac is forty years old when he marries Rebecca, but she is barren. Both Isaac and Rebecca pray to G-d and she becomes pregnant.

The Torah, in Genesis 25:22, describes Rebecca’s difficult pregnancy, וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, וַתֹּאמֶר אִם כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי, וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת השׁם, The children battled within her and she said, “If so, why am I thus?” And she went to inquire of G-d.

The Torah then reports G-d’s response to Rebecca, Genesis 25:23, וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם לָהּ, שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ, וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים, מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ, וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ, וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר, “Two nations are in your womb; two peoples shall be separated from your insides; and one people shall be stronger than the other people, and the elder shall serve the younger.”

Rashi understands this to mean that Rebecca said to herself, “If the pain of pregnancy is so great, why do I desire to be pregnant and pray for a child?” Rashi explains that Rebecca went to the house of study of Shem and Eber, the ancient prophets, who inquired of G-d on her behalf. Through the Divine message, Rebecca is told about the two nations that are in her womb and the two peoples who will come out of her, who will struggle with one another.

Rabbi David Holzer in his intriguing book, The Rav: Thinking Aloud, cites a fascinating interpretation of Rebecca’s response, attributed to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

The Midrash states that Rebecca’s profound concern about the pregnancy was due to the fact that her pain was much greater than the normal pain experienced by women who are pregnant. Alternately, the Midrash suggests that Rebecca felt exceptional pain when she went by a house of Torah study or a house of idol worship, and each of her twins wanted to participate in the activities of their own favored house of worship.

The pain must have been excruciatingly great, because after all her prayers to relieve her barrenness, Rebecca still cries out, “Why should I go on living?” It is also perplexing to learn that Rebecca is pacified when she hears that she is carrying twins who will do battle with one another.

While Rashi interprets the phrase, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת השׁם, to seek out G-d, as meaning that Rebecca went to the prophet to find out what the end will be, the Ramban explains the word, לִדְרֹשׁ “Lidrosh” to mean, prayer.

In order to explain this, Rabbi Holzer invokes a most insightful lecture that Rabbi Soloveitchik delivered on prayer and religious loneliness.

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that the very essence of nature makes a human feel inadequate and insignificant. After all, a human is composed of the same cellular material from which all the other creatures are created. “Science,” says Rabbi Soloveitchik, “works hand-in-hand with nature to tell man that he is nothing, just part-and-parcel of nature itself.”

In a fascinating note, Rabbi Holzer cites Freud’s observation that every paradigm-shifting scientific discovery has served to demote and distance man further and further from being the center of the universe. “First Copernicus (literally) removed earth as the focal point of the geocentric solar system, then Darwin removed man from the apex of biology. Freud argued that his own work would unseat the rationality of the human mind in favor of subconscious motivations.”

The nature of the human being is also a subject of ambivalence among the rabbis. On the one hand, the rabbis state (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5) that every human should declare, בִּשְׁבִילִי נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם, that the world was created just for me. The rabbis in Sanhedrin 38a, however, say, that no human should be overly proud, and one should always recall that יִדְרוֹשׁ כְּדַמְךָ, that the lowly gnat preceded your creation.

When the human recognizes his insignificance, he often finds himself lacking in self-esteem and becomes depressed.

Where, asks Rabbi Soloveitchik, does the human go, to find his uniqueness and to build his self-esteem? Rabbi Soloveitchik responds, “There is only one Intelligent Being Who can do that: G-d!”

Rabbi Soloveitchik sees “religious loneliness” as a positive experience. Religious loneliness is part of the human being’s search to find someone or something that would assure him of his own great power and strength that is inherent in him. It is this religious loneliness that leads one to לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת השׁם, to seek out G-d.

According to Rashi, Rebecca’s religious crisis was resolved by hearing directly from the prophets about her unique role and the unique role of her children. The prophet’s response was clear.

However, according to the Ramban, Rebecca’s prayers allowed her to put things into perspective and restore her confidence. In prophecy, the Al-mighty engages the human being in conversation. In prayer, the human being initiates the dialogue and engages G-d in the conversation.

It was in this manner that Rebecca came to no longer regard herself as an insignificant part of creation. The crisis was resolved by Rebecca coming to the understanding that she has a unique role to play, even if it was to be a difficult one.

May you be blessed.