This week's portion: dream

Rivka's questions, our answers (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion in 2006, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.

In the early lines of parashat Toledot, Yitzchak pleads with God because his wife Rivka has not yet conceived. God responds, the text tells us, to this plea; Rikva does conceive -- but she feels the dangerous struggle in her womb, and she says, "If so, why do I exist?"

The story continues from there in the way we have all come to recognize: the promise that her younger son will rule over the elder, the birth of hairy Esau and grasping Jacob, the twin birthright stories, the trickery.

But as a reader I'm reluctant to move on, caught by the moment of Rivka's anguished cry. I imagine her tossing and turning on a bed of blankets, trying to find comfort despite the palpable struggle of the child (she does not yet know there are two) in her womb. Perhaps she fears miscarriage, or that her baby will tangle itself in the umbilical cord as it thrashes inside her.

And so she cries out. If this is happening -- and it is happening; the struggle inside her feels like it may kill her -- then why does she exist? Why has her life led her to this moment?

It's a question with no answer, a kind of existential eikha. It is the nature of our existence that risk arises, and it is also our nature to fear and resent that risk when it comes. We build the best lives we can manage, we put our hearts and our time into what we do, but no amount of effort is proof against suffering. The possibility of loss is always at our heels.

Jacob is at Esau's heel, grasping it so tightly that he is named "Heel-grabber" when the two have emerged from the womb. Maybe he wants to hold his brother back; maybe he just wants something concrete and familiar to hang on to as he emerges from the womb into the strange and unpredictable new world.

And Esau? Esau is a woodsman, a hunter, a man of appetites so strong that, the text tells us, one day he comes home so hungry he willingly trades his birthright for a bowl of stew. If Jacob is all about attachment, Esau is all about desire.

We chart our lineage back to Jacob, so of the twins it is he who interests us most. In a certain sense, Jacob is a pair of twins all by himself; for now he is Jacob, who allows his mother to orchestrate the trickery which will subvert the natural division of power between himself and his brother, but later in life he will become Israel, the God-wrestler.

Many teachers have offered the insight that we can see in ourselves the necessary tension between Jacob and Israel. One interpretation holds that Jacob represents our lower selves, and Israel our higher; another, that Jacob represents our embodiment and Israel our spirituality. (A hint of this can be read into the line mah tovu ohalecha ya'akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael -- "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling-places, O Israel." Jacob is the part of us which inhabits earthly tents, buildings with walls and doors; Israel is the part of us which creates a home for the Shekhinah, the presence of God, to dwell.)

But I wonder what we might learn if we tried to integrate in ourselves not only Jacob's two faces, but also the relationship between Jacob and his twin. How would we understand ourselves if we embraced both Jacob's underdog qualities and Esau's physical strength, Jacob's ability to hold on for dear life and Esau's connection with the red earth, Jacob's attachment and Esau's desire?

This line of thinking would not spare us from the moments of anguish that we, like Rivka, are heir to. There will be times when what we desire to birth into the world will tangle within us, as though we carried conflict within our own skins. And we can never know in advance what we're midwifing into being.

But creating divisions between brothers -- or divisions within our understandings of ourselves -- perpetuates the long line of familiar and familial conflicts that make the book of Bereshit so recognizable to us today. What would happen if we answered Rivka's question -- "if this is so, why do I exist?" -- with the intention of creating connection and common ground between the disparate parts of our families, our world, and ourselves? How then might our own toledot, the tale of our own generations, be different in years to come?