11.22.2006

"Why?" Thoughts on Parshat Toldot

I was in shul for Shabbat mincha in time to catch the first aliya, and the juxtaposition of the first and third (short) aliyot gave me pause.

After a period of infertility, Rebecca becomes pregnant with twins and feels them struggling ("ויתרצצו") in her womb. She says, "If so, why am I?" I was struck by the word "למה"--"why," not to mention the end of the question, "זה אנכי" "am I?" Why am I what? Rebecca seems to be asking an existential question. I don't know how it feels to have warring fetuses in your uterus, but I imagine that it is uncomfortable if not painful. Here was this thing she wanted very much, and it's giving her pain! She seems to be asking, "What meaning does my life have if the thing that I wanted so much is causing me such pain?"

Rebecca goes to seek an answer from God. I love the word that is used for "seek"--"לדרש." Perhaps because of its resonance from Psalms where the afraid or troubled Psalmist seeks God with the same words (for example, Psalms 34:5: דרשתי את-יהוה וענני; ומכל-מגורותי הצילני or Psalms 77:3: ביום צרתי, אדני דרשתי:
ידי, לילה נגרה--ולא תפוג; מאנה הנחם נפשי.). To me, the word "drisha" has the quality of both seeking and longing, specifically by one seeking a comforting presence. God tells her that she is destined to become the mother of two nations, and that is why this thing that she wanted is causing her pain. Great things sometimes come only through pain.

In the third (short) aliya of Parshat Toldot, the word "למה" appears again. This time, Esau asks a more rhetorical question, "I am about to die of hunger--why do I need this birthright?" ("הנה אנכי הולך למות; ולמה-זה לי, בכרה") when Jacob asks him for his birthright in exchange for a pot of red lentil soup. It's a different kind of "why," inspired not by the sort of existential angst of having longed for something and it causing one pain, but by the immediate quest for satiety. And Esau doesn't go to be doresh God in seeking an answer. He asks it only of himself and answers it himself by selling the birthright to Jacob. As a result, he does not become the father of a great nation. Rebecca's asking the question "Why?" elicits a response from God that she will be the the progenitor of two nations, and Esau's asking the question "Why?" precipitates his losing the possibility of being the father of the greater of the two nations.

That's all I have for now!

These two instances of "why" being juxtaposed led me to wonder where else "why" appears in the Torah, and I was going to get a concordance and look it up, but I haven't had time and don't expect to before Shabbat. (I do know that Moses uses it in Exodus 32:11-12.) Leaves something to pursue next year...


Categories: Torah, parsha

1 comment:

Nem said...

Thanks for pointing out that juxtaposition, and I like your explanation. I would add that Esau's "why" or "what is this for?" implies the answer - that he does not see value in the birthright. The answer to Rebecca's "why" - what is this painful pregnancy for? - is that there is a purpose. It's worth some discomfort now for the long-term value of having children (and longer-term, a nation.) Esau chose the immediate gratification over the discomfort of hunger, losing the birthright in the process.