Parshat Toldot

Torah Reading for Week of October 31 – November 6, 2010


by Susan Nanus, AJRCA Fourth Year Rabbinical Student

Im ken, lamah zeh anochi? “If so, why is this me?” These are the words that Rebecca utters when she finds herself pregnant at the beginning of Parshat Toldot. After waiting for almost twenty years to conceive, Rebecca discovers that she is going to have twins, but it is not the blessing that she expected. The text reveals that “the children struggled in her womb,” and as Rashi explains, “the pain was great.” The Eytz Chayim commentary adds that “the fetal movements are spasmodic and she has fears of miscarrying.” Something is terribly wrong, and though Rebecca has realized her long-desired dream of motherhood, she is not filled with the joy and celebration she anticipated, but rather with suffering, anxiety and apprehension.

Heartsick and in agony, Rebecca finds herself asking one of the universal questions of the human condition. “Why me?” This existential query is one that we all recognize and that most of us have experienced when we ourselves have been in pain, whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual. “What did I do to deserve this? Why is this happening to me? Where is G-d?”

Whereas Rebecca was able to turn to G-d and actually receive an answer to her query, that is rarely, if ever, the case today. As Jewish spiritual leaders, trying to explain the reason for suffering is undoubtedly one of the most difficult challenges that we will ever face. How can we ever justify the injury or death of a loved one, the onset of illness, the loss of one’s home or livelihood?

Throughout centuries of Jewish tragedy, Jewish sages, scholars and philosophers have wrestled with this almost unanswerable question. Their responses have been varied and often unsatisfying or unacceptable to modern Jews, either blaming the victims or advising us not to challenge G-d’s wisdom. Though the Kabbalah teaches that everything happens for a reason and has a deeper meaning, this is a very difficult concept for most people to accept. And while Rabbi Harold Kushner’s position that G-d is not all-powerful and cannot prevent suffering is rational and makes sense, it is not very comforting.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, however, viewed suffering as a natural part of life and even necessary for the growth and elevation of the soul:

“When the time comes for a person to rise from one level to the next, he must first experience a fall. The whole purpose of the fall is to prepare for the ascent.”

Furthermore, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto suggests that “suffering is meant to motivate a person and awaken his heart to repent.”

They do have a point. When we are suffering, our concern with trivialities immediately disappears. We suddenly comprehend what is really important, and oftentimes, we reevaluate and refocus our lives towards those values.

Is this comforting to someone who has lost a child or been struck with cancer? I’m not sure. But as Viktor Frankl discovered during the Holocaust, suffering is bearable if it has meaning. If we cannot receive a direct answer from G-d like Rebecca, perhaps we can ponder these encouraging words from Reb Nachman: “Try to understand this… No matter how far you fall, never allow yourself to be discouraged. Remain firm and resolute and pay no attention to the fall at all, because in the end it will be transformed into a great ascent. This is its whole purpose.”

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