Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Breaking Free From The Great Teachers
At the opening of Toledot we find Isaac pleading with God, in the presence of his barren wife, Rebecca, that she might—after twenty years of waiting—finally bear a child. God hears Isaac’s plea and Rebecca becomes pregnant. The next verse warrants our attention, not so much for what it says, but for what generations of rabbis have come to make it mean. It has become quasi-impossible for us to read these words just as they are, without the overlay of rabbinic interpretation (read: “Rashi”). Not surprisingly, the translations we find today are skewed to reflect this accepted interpretation.
In Rashi’s view the pregnancy doesn’t go well. Rebecca is carrying twins and experiences much pain because they—Esau and Jacob—are wrestling in her womb. The idol worshiper Esau is wrestling his Torah-loving brother Jacob in utero over who will be the firstborn son and is to inherit Abraham’s blessing. Based on Rashi, translators have read the verse: “Vayit’rotz’tzu habanim bikir’bah, vatomer: Im ken, lamah zeh anochi” to mean: “The children crushed within her, and she said: ‘If this is so, why do I exist?’” (Gen. 25:22). Nachmanides, a century after Rashi, goes so far as to read Rebecca’s question as: “What good is life if I have to suffer like this?”
I take issue with Rashi’s and Nachmanides’ interpretations for several reasons. First, they deliberately make Esau into a bad guy and Jacob into a good one, when—as the story unfolds—we find, arguably, that the opposite is true. Second, because it introduces a two-sided conflict between the sons when, in fact, only Jacob will plot against, deceive, and betray his brother (and father). Esau—once past his feelings of anger and revenge for what Jacob did to him—is the one to seek peace and reconciliation between them in the end. Third, it paints Rebecca as weak and meek when her character is anything but. Other dissenting rabbis argue that multiple pregnancies are often difficult but not to the point of causing the mother-to-be to fall into such dire despair. (Mizrachi; Siftei Chachamim)
So what would a translation freed from Rashi’s and Nachmanides’ interpretations allow us to see? One possibility would be to read the verse to mean: “And the sons were squeezed within her, and she said, ‘If so, why is this [happening through] me?’” (Gen. 25:22). The first part of the verse simply states that Rebecca is pregnant with twin boys and that they shared a tight space together. It could be interpreted to mean that, in the womb, they were close to each other. Rebecca’s question doesn’t portray her as being in pain or suicidal. And even if she did experience pain through her pregnancy, as mothers often do, contrary to Rashi’s or Nachmanides’ assumptions Rebecca doesn’t necessarily hold as a primary expectation that life should be exclusively good or free of suffering. The opposite is true. She says: “If so…,” meaning if this is what is. Rebecca simply accepts what is. She doesn’t resist her experience or label it as good or bad. Then she asks: “Why is this?” Why two children and not just one? What is God’s plan? How is this going to impact the fulfillment of God’s Promise? Suddenly she knows herself to take center stage in a play of cosmic proportion. We can infer this because of the last word of her question translated as “me.” The word here is “Anochi—I am.” Anochi is the “I Am” that God speaks in the First Commandment. The Talmud (Shabbat 104a) homiletically interprets anochi as the “I, who is wearing the crown.” This is the Divine “I Am” within Rebecca: her Higher Self. This is the “I Am” she is connecting to in this moment of realization; the “I Am” through which the Divine story unfolds; through us, through her.
As Rebecca asks, I too wonder: “Why is this?” Why is it that we let ourselves be convinced that one interpretation is the interpretation? How many “truths” have we swallowed whole and never challenged? How many great teachers have paradoxically narrowed our understanding, made us more rigid and stuck in a particular interpretation? To this, Rashi himself would say: “Dar’sheini!—Expound me!”