Rebekah's Spiritual Crisis

Like Rebekah, we should turn toward God, not away, in our moments of spiritual crisis.

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In Focus

But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, "If so, why do I exist?" She went to inquire of the Eternal." (Genesis 25:22)

Pshat

To be honest, the Pshat (the simple meaning of the text) is not so clear. Isaac pleads with God to allow Rebekah to conceive. God responds positively and she does become pregnant. Unfortunately, it proves to be a difficult pregnancy, with what turns out to be twins struggling in her womb. Despondent, Rebekah cries out in anguish. However, the words of her exclamation, as recorded, are ambiguous. She then goes herself to seek an explanation from God.

Drash

I don't think there is a woman in the world who has been pregnant (especially with twins) who cannot relate to Rebekah's discomfort and anguish. And for her to cry out in an incomprehensible manner, that too is understandable. Bearing children is tough work. However, the Torah is not so comfortable with passages that seem to not make sense. Nothing in Torah is superfluous or redundant. Therefore, we need to try and find meaning in Rebekah's words.

Im keyn, lammah zeh 'anokhi (Genesis 25:22) is usually translated as something like, "If so, why do I exist?" But, as Nahum Sarna notes in the Jewish Publication Society Torah commentary, the Hebrew phrase is actually an incomplete sentence, literally meaning something like, "If so, why then am/do I..." The phrase is dramatic and powerful in its incompleteness. One can almost imagine a twinge of severe pain doubling Rebekah over in mid-exclamation, as if to emphasize her distress.

But we need to remember that Rebekah's pregnancy is the result of a divine act. Repeating the motif of the barren wife of a patriarch, Rebekah remains childless twenty years after her marriage to Isaac. But, unlike his father Abraham, it was Isaac himself who acts this time, praying to God to intervene

Isaac's act of faith is rewarded with fertility. But, despite the fact that this pregnancy is the result of God's response, it is not to be easy for Rebekah. Rebekah's desperate cry then becomes a statement of faith in of itself. But what do these words mean? Could she possibly be questioning the miraculous gift that God has given her?

Rashi expands Rebekah's words to try and explain their meaning. He explains the phrase to mean, "If the pain of pregnancy be so great, why is it that I longed and prayed to be pregnant?" In this reading, she seems to blame not God but her own naiveté for getting her into this uncomfortable situation. It is a "Be careful of what you ask, because you just might get it" type of situation.

Ibn Ezra gives a different explanation. He suggests (following a midrash) that Rebekah went around to all the women of the community to ask if they had experienced such pain in pregnancy. They all answered, "No." Realizing that her pregnancy is different, Rebekah cries out, seeking to know why her experience is unusual.

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Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen

Jordan D. Cohen is the rabbi of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario. Previously, he worked as Associate Director of KOLEL - The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, Canada. Prior to his return to Canada, Rabbi Cohen served as Rabbi of the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, and Associate Rabbi of the North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.