Thursday, November 5, 2015

We Are Bnei Rivkah (Derashah, Chayei Sarah 5776)

(This isn't actually a derashah; it's more of a nugget, which could be developed into a derashah.)

Next week's Torah portion, Toldot, will begin with Rivkah pregnant with twins. Her children will "race about" in her womb, and she will react with a question: אם כן, למה זה אנכי? (Bereishit 25:22)

Rivkah's language is odd. Commentators generally explain that Rivkah asked, "This is so painful, why did I want it?" (Rashi) Or, "This is so painful, why should I continue to live?" (Ramban) But Dr. Yael Tzohar, of Bar Ilan University (Hebrew here), notes that this doesn't fit Rivkah's words, which translate literally to, "If so, why me?" Further, would a woman who prayed for children for twenty years respond to pain with this level of rejection? [Yes, I am not qualified to answer that question, but perhaps Dr. Tzohar has more familiarity with pregnancy than I do...] And how does G-d's response, predicting the rivalry between her two fetuses, answer either version of Rivkah's question?

Dr. Tzohar suggests that we consider Rivkah's background, from our Torah portion of Chayei Sarah. Rivkah lived with her pagan family until her monotheistic cousin's servant came to visit. That servant declared that Rivkah was special, by dint of her generous conduct at the well. (ibid. 24:14-20)  The servant announced that a Divine miracle had identified her as special. (ibid. 24:40-48)  When the family hesitated, the servant reiterated that G-d had selected her. (ibid. 24:56)  Her family then blessed her - "You shall produce myriads." (ibid. 24:60) This is the woman who will mother the next generation of the family promised to Avraham and Sarah.

Against this backdrop, Dr. Tzohar says that Rivkah interpreted the pains of pregnancy as a message that something was wrong, and she was ineligible. And she turned to G-d and asked, "If so, then why ME?" If there is something wrong with my pagan lineage, if I am not worthy, then why did You bring me here and set me up for this?

To this ancient question - which echoes our own question today as we face knife attacks, demonization in the media, and diplomatic ostracism - G-d answers, "There are two nations in your uterus. Two nations will separate from your womb." (ibid. 25:23) Yes, Rivkah - you are the one I have selected, you are the one who is suited for this task. There is pain now, and there will be pain in the future, and I need you to fill this role.

Rivkah remembered G-d's answer. Many years later, when the birthright and the family's future was at stake, and Yaakov suggested that his mother's shockingly brazen plan might cause him to be cursed, Rivkah told him with the superlative confidence of G-d's official delegate, "Any curse of yours is on me." I was destined for this position because G-d wanted me to make this decision. (ibid. 27:13)

There are many answers to the "Why us?" question, but this answer inspires me. The Divine plan requires that a nation accept G-d's Torah, live in Israel and stand apart from the world, and it may well be fundamental to human nature and Free Will that this will bring with it great animosity from others. It hurts terribly, and we must do what we can to minimize the pain, whether diplomatically or militarily - but at the end of the day, we are here because G-d knows that Rivkah's descendants are uniquely suited to stand up to the task.

We have stood up to the challenge for thousands of years, with remarkable success, producing a rich culture and a sustained tradition of intellectual depth and moral heights. The light at the end of the tunnel is in view, with our return to national life in Zion. G-d's bet on Rivkah was a good one, and I believe the same is true for G-d's bet on her descendants.


  1. As we say at the Seder, our forebears were idol-worshippers if you go back far enough. So Rivkah wasn't unique in her lineage.

  2. RAM-
    Certainly true - but 1) at the seder we consider it a sign of disgrace/gnut, and 2) it is highlighted at the start of Toldos in contrast with Yitzchak's ancestry

    1. Casting off idolatry is a zechus, no?

    2. True, but that doesn't prevent insecurity about the past - see Bava Metzia 58b on אונאת דברים.

    3. If she had to endure insecurity about the past and remained steadfast, that's also a zechus.