This fall I'm taking a class called "Torah Journeys" with Rabbi Shefa Gold. Reb Shefa is teaching us her method of intensely personal exegesis, as appears in her excellent collection of parshaniyut, Torah Journeys. We've each been asked to engage in a "Torah journey" of our own around a Torah text of our choosing; I chose this week's portion, Toldot.
At the very beginning of this parsha, we learn that Rebecca is childless. Yitzchak pleads with God on her behalf and she conceives. She feels the tumult of the twins within her, and goes to inquire of YHVH, אם כן, למה זה אנכי? -- usually translated as "If this is so, then why do I exist?
1) Where's the blessing here?
The beginning of this parsha has always struck a chord with me. Even someone who has never been pregnant knows the experience of mixed emotions, of feeling tumultuous motion within oneself, of wondering "Why am I here?" Rebecca is deeply conscious of her own mixed feelings, of her swirl of emotions. They lead her to ask: what am I here for? What am I doing? What is my purpose? And she brings these questions to the Source of All. Although we've never seen her speak directly to God before, she doesn't seem to feel that she needs an intermediary; she brings her question directly to the Holy Blessed One.
It's interesting to me that Rebecca doesn't ask YHVH for a child, nor does she take the extraordinary steps which other Biblical foremothers took -- she doesn't bring her handmaid to her husband as Sarah did, nor does she beseech God herself for a child as Hannah will do. The text doesn't tell us how she felt before the conception: did she understand herself as bereft, as empty? Or was she contented with her situation, and surprised when something new and strange began to grow inside her? One blessing I find in this part of the parsha is Rebecca's readiness to speak directly to God. Another blessing is her willingness to question.
Now that I am only a few short days away from birthing my first child, this text offers me new blessings. I can relate to Rebecca's question not only as an intellectual and spiritual matter, but also as a physical one. In assiyah (the world of action and physicality), although I don't know what it's like to bear twins, I do know now what it feels like to have something which is not-me stirring inside my body. I've struggled at times with the anticipation of yielding control over my life (both in pregnancy, and especially once the baby comes and I am no longer able to pursue rabbinic studies full-time), and I find reassurance in the fact that this foremother struggled too with the question אם כן, למה זה אנכי?
What's more: when Rebecca asks, God answers her. Although I have only rarely had the experience of feeling directly answered by God, this story reminds me to reach out to God when I have questions and fears, and to know that God hears me.
2) What's the spiritual challenge?
On a pshat (surface) level: when God answers Rebecca, she learns that she contains two peoples within her and that the two peoples will be in contention. "The elder will serve the younger," God says — a classic Biblical inversion of the usual power structure and the status quo.
But the story of Jacob and Esau can also be read as another iteration of the family dysfunction we've already seen in the household of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham had two sons (and then, after Sarah's death, several more whose stories are never told) but despite his famed chesed (openhearted lovingkindness) he didn't have the skills to keep his family an integrated whole. Jealousy and enmity arose between his wife and her servant, and Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert. Though the boys unite to bury their father, we don't have the sense of any further relationship between them.
Jacob and Esau are, we know, doomed to a similar set of circumstances. Theirs will be a relationship of mistrust and trickery and hurt feelings. Ultimately Jacob will flee from his twin, and although they will meet again later in life, they won't have the skills necessary to really be in relationship with one another. It's easy to read Jacob and Esau as two sides of a single self: the intellect and the embodied, the bookish and the outdoorsy, the mama's boy and daddy's favorite. Each of us contains both of these sides, and as long as Jacob and Esau contend with one another, we can't find integration.
As I consider the life moving in my womb, sometimes I wonder what God would say to me about him if I could get as direct an answer as Rebecca gets. What old family patterns am I in danger of replicating if I'm not attentive? Will I fail to nurture some part of him? Will I be like Rebecca, scheming to benefit one part of my child at the expense of another? I don't want to fall prey to temptation to "play God" in my child's life, or to position myself in opposition to my partner on questions of childrearing as Rebecca does. This text is not (just) about "them" in "that time:" it's about us, now, in my family, in this moment.
How can I raise my son to integrate his inner Jacob and his inner Esau? How can I do the same with my own self, integrating the part of me that is rooted in my community with the part of me which has always felt like I'm on the outside looking in? I am Rebecca, pregnant with change; I am both Jacob and Esau, the insider and the outsider; I am Isaac, mourning my losses and caught inside my own sorrow and blindness. What can I learn, how can I heal?
3) What is the practice that I'm being asked to do in order to rise to the spiritual challenge, to receive the blessing?
These verses call me first to discernment, then to creativity.
Discernment: I need to take the time to be conscious of my journey. I need to be attuned to the struggles within me, physically and emotionally and mentally. This requires setting aside some time for checking in with myself and my experience, and imitating Rebecca in bringing whatever I discern to the Holy One of Blessing. And I need to be conscious of the spiritual challenge I see in this story this year, attunement to the risks of perpetuating old family stories instead of writing new ones which might be more open to abundance and to change.
Creativity: it's not enough just to contemplate. There needs to be something I can do to integrate this learning into my life. What if I created something physical/tangible to represent my questions and my answers? First, I might prayerfully write down my questions for God (and then perhaps continue to freewrite, seeing what answers might flow through me.) And then I could sift through what I've written (whether lengthy essays, or individual words on scraps of paper) and choose what in my family story I want to carry forward and what I want to discard. The old family narratives I want to discard might be thrown away or burned or even tossed into water as at tashlich; and the pieces I want to treasure I might choose to hang over my desk or tuck away somewhere precious and safe.
What would it be like if I set aside a regular time to do this practice: maybe each month before Rosh Chodesh? Can I find a hevruta partner with whom I can share the end results? None of this change is going to bear fruit before my son is born, but I'd like to think that by the next time this parsha rolls around in our yearly cycle, maybe I can do some growing and changing.
If I am able to do that, then Rebecca's blessing — being able to speak directly to God, to ask the questions at the center of my being, and knowing that I am heard and answered — can reverberate for me, and I can aim to resist imitating what I see as Rebecca's shadow side, her willingness to be behind the scenes pulling the strings.