No one can make you question your existence quite like your own family. What am I doing here? What is my life all about? Why am I alive? Who are these people, and why do they think they know me? Granted, these aren’t always the ones you always tackle for fun but they are the kinds of questions that you might expect in a deep and powerful spiritual setting.
Or in a family drama.
These are the kinds of questions that Rebecca tackles in this week’s parasha, Toldot. Rebecca and Isaac have been married for a while now, but they haven’t any kids. This seems to bother Isaac, because he goes to God and asks that his wife Rebecca would become pregnant, and she did. It seemed to be a terrible pregnancy, and Rebecca says, “Lama zeh anochi”, (Gen. 25:22)the translation of which is disputable.
“If this is so, why do I exist?” Or, “If this is my situation, why should I go on living?” It’s unclear whether she’s talking to God, or Isaac, or herself, but to answer the question, she went to God. God told her that she was having twins, that they will be two separate nations, that they will quarrel and the older will serve the younger. That’s a lot to ponder in the last weeks of a difficult pregnancy.
Rebecca asks a similar question at the end of this parasha. Rebecca’s sons, Esau and Jacob have deceived each other, Jacob and Rebecca have deceived Esau and Isaac, and rather than lose both sons at the same time, Rebecca has convinces her favorite son Jacob to flee from his murderous brother bent on revenge.
Rebecca sends Jacob away to marry a girl from the old country, because to marry a girl from the Hittites, she says, “ lama li chayim” …Why do I have life?” Or, “What would my life be worth?” Or, “what good will my life be to me?”
Like I said, nothing can make you question your existence quite like your family, or in this case, your children. But Rebecca doesn’t seem to question her motivation for doing what she does; God told her how the story is supposed to end, and Rebecca has chosen to fulfill the prophecy from God, even at great personal cost. She’s encouraged a rift between father and sons, between brothers, and in fact, between herself and her favored son, since after Jacob leaves, she never sees him again. She is completely devoted to seeing Jacob prevail, as she believes God told her to do, but as far as she knows, at the end of this parasha, her family has disintegrated. Indeed, that might be a time for her to ask her question again, “If this is as it is, why do I exist? Was my purpose to destroy the ones closest to me, the ones whom I’ve loved for so many years?”
Those kinds of family dynamics, actually, do great harm, no matter the “greater good.” For all her strength and commitment, for all her devotion, Rebecca also displays the extreme behavior of a zealot for God. And zealots for God are in part, cautionary tales. The mother who puts her children at the center of her world, to the exclusion of all other relationships, like Rebecca does, leaves pain in her wake. She deceives, and makes her son deceive, too. Passion is a good thing in our lives. We need passion to give our lives purpose, to answer the question of why we are here. But as the Torah so often teaches us, “moderation to the extreme”, as a friend of mine told me years ago. When we question our existence, when we wonder why we are here on this planet, here in this community, here in this place, we must remember to temper our actions and answer the question for unity and harmony, not deception and lies .