(This blog was first posted on November 1, 2010.)
Isaac prayed to God, in front of his wife, because she was barren; and God was moved by the prayer to him; and his wife, Rebecca, conceived. But the sons pushed and crushed one another inside her. And she said: “If thus why this I?” And she went to question God. (Genesis/Bereishit 25:21-22)
im kein lamah zeh anochi = literally: “If thus why this I?”
“If it’s like this, why me?”
“Why am I this way?”
“If so, why do I exist?”
In last week’s Torah portion, Rebecca is portrayed as remarkably strong-willed and hospitable to strangers (hauling water for the camels of Abraham’s steward until they’ve drunk their fill); decisive and courageous (deciding she will leave at once to marry a stranger in a strange land); and impressed by a man who prays (falling off her camel when she sees him, and then, upon discovering the man is her fiancé Isaac, instantly donning her wedding veil).
This week’s Torah portion, Toledot (Histories) opens when Isaac and Rebecca have been married almost twenty years, and are still childless. Isaac prays, and Rebecca gets pregnant, but the violent movements in her belly alarm her. She says something cryptic, then becomes the first person in the Torah to seek out and question God.
Even Abraham waits for God to speak to him before venturing to ask God any questions. But although Rebecca lets her husband do the praying for conception, she does not ask Isaac to find out about the battle in her belly. She goes straight to God.
At least that’s what the text says. Some medieval commentary says she went to the school of Noah’s sons Shem and Ever, who were somehow still alive and running the world’s first yeshiva (Jewish seminary). Some modern commentary speculates that she actually went to a professional oracle. But the remaining commentary credits her with going directly to God. I suspect Rebecca goes to the nearest holy spot—perhaps the well where Hagar heard God—and stands there alone, asking her question from her heart until she gets an answer.
What is her motivation for this unprecedented act? It depends on the interpretation of her cry, Im kein lamah zeh anochi. If she means “If it’s like this, why me?”, Rebecca questions God because she wishes some other woman were carrying the painful burden and risking miscarriage or her own death. Why can’t Isaac have his sons by a concubine instead? (c.f. Abraham Ibn Ezra, 12th century; Obadiah Sforno, 16th century). Is God punishing her because there’s something wrong with her? (c.f. Talmud, tractate Sotah 12a).
If Rebecca means, “Why am I this way?”, she just wants to understand why her pregnancy is so unusual (c.f. Radak–Rabbi David Kimhe, circa 1200; 19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch). What can she expect when it’s time for the birth? What will happen after that?
But if Rebecca means, “If so, why do I exist?”, she seems to be close to despair, wondering if her painful pregnancy is worth living through (c.f. 13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman). Going to God is a last-ditch effort to find a reason to carry on.
I don’t think the “Why me?” attitude fits Rebecca’s character. Would someone that hospitable to a stranger want to inflict pain or death on a concubine? Would someone that self-confident wonder if she had some horrible hidden flaw?
“Why am I this way?” makes more sense. Rebecca might well have a practical motivation for questioning God. She is fundamentally a woman of action, and now that something strange and alarming is happening, she can no longer stay in her tent and leave things up to her adored husband. She has to find out what will happen next, so she can be prepared to respond to any emergency. Later in the Torah portion, when she overhears that Isaac is about to give the blessing to the wrong twin, she reacts with a decisive emergency response, as if certain that her desire matches God’s will.
Yet is also possible that even a strong woman like Rebecca might come close to despair after 20 years of watching her husband pray for a child right in front of her, followed by a pregnancy that tortures her and seems likely to end in death. She would be desperate to find some meaning in life, some reason for it all—desperate enough to seek out God.
Many of us reach a moment when we wonder: “Why am I this?” Is there some reason for everything I’ve gone through? What is my purpose in life? What is the meaning of it?
I believe the worst thing to do, when that moment comes, is to accept the answer of an authority figure: someone in a pulpit, on a book jacket, on television, on a calendar page or refrigerator magnet. Someone else’s idea of the meaning of life might bring me temporary comfort, but how can it answer a cry from the depths of my soul? No, I have to seek God on my own, like Rebecca. I have to keep questioning God, even though I don’t know what God is, until my answer comes.
I think I am beginning to feel my purpose in life, but it’s too amorphous to put into words. And I believe, without any rational reason, that there is meaning in life, but I don’t know what the meaning is. Since I’m a modern woman, I get my incomplete and mysterious answers in the form of vague intuitions, instead of in the form of riddling prophecies like the one Rebecca received.
Maybe a complete answer will never come to me. That’s okay. I’ll keep on seeking God, I’ll keep on questioning. For me, the search is what’s important.