Every week, parshaoftheweek.com brings you a rich selection of material on parshat hashavua, the weekly portion traditionally read in synagogues all over the world. Using both classic and contemporary material, we take a look at these portions in a fresh way, relating them to both ancient Jewish concerns as well as cutting-edge modern issues and topics. We also bring you material on the Jewish holidays, as well as insights into life cycle rituals and events...
Jerusalem is finally getting its first big rain of the season. I’ve been busy clearing drains, picking up fallen leaves and branches, and generally battening down the hatches. One can’t help but think how this long-awaited storm is a mixed blessing: great for the farmers, the Kinneret, and the rivers and streams all around the country, tough on those with leaky ceilings, flooding first floor apartments, and the two cops I saw today getting soaked while trying to direct traffic at a busy Jerusalem corner where the traffic lights had gone out.
This week’s parsha, Toldot, which contains the dramatic and difficult story of the tussling twins, Yaakov and Esav, gives us a lot to think about when it comes to mixed blessings. At the very outset, a barren Rivkah has her prayers answered and conceives. Something is wrong, however; she experiences great pain and discomfort. She is informed that she is carrying twins; not just twins, but warring twins, twins who are fated, from the womb, to be in deadly competition. This long-awaited and prayed for pregnancy starts as a mixed blessing indeed, and the entire relationship between the brothers and the parents continues in this vein: the enmity of the brothers, the disagreement between Rivkah, who loves Yaakov, and her husband Yitzchak, who prefers Esav – this family may be blessed with children, but it feels like a curse as well.
Upon reflection, it becomes clear that this fraught reality is the rule, rather than the exception, in the relationships in the Torah. People find love, only to experience difficulty having children, or in maintaining their relationship. Parents hope and pray for children, only to be disappointed by their behavior. Upon further reflection, one realizes that this is not only the way things are in the Torah – it’s the way things are. Just about everything in life has a good and a bad side, blessings are mixed, and often contain within them challenges, difficulties, and even disappointments.
For a bit more insight into this somewhat depressing reality, let’s take a look at the first mixed blessings in the parsha. Yitzchak and Rivkah are brought together, are happily married, but are unable to have children. They approach this setback beautifully, and pray together for God to grant them a child. Once Rivkah conceives, things do not continue on an even keel: “the children were moving restlessly inside her, and she said, ‘if this is the way it is, why am I?’” The pain she experiences seems unbearable, and it would seem she fears a miscarriage, and perhaps mortal danger to herself.
She is told by God that she has twins – she will bear two competing, warring nations, who are already struggling with one another for primacy. The next thing we are told is that she reaches full term, and in fact gives birth to Yaakov and Esav.
The obvious question is: what good did hearing this answer from God do Rivkah? Did knowing the reason for her painful pregnancy somehow alleviate that pain? Make it more bearable? Did it perhaps, once explained, somehow stop?
The Sforno understands Rivkah’s painful question – “if this is the way it is, why am I?” as referring to her very pregnancy: Why did I get married, and want to have children, if this is the painful, dangerous result? According to this understanding, the answer does not alleviate the pain, it explains it, and reassures her that it is (sort of) natural and, most importantly, there is no danger: two children, two nations will be born from your womb, they will live, you will live, it will be hard, it will be an ongoing struggle, but it will be OK. It will be worth it.
According to this, Rivkah was not really upset about the discomfort; she was worried about the possibility of failure. She thought that the pain she was experiencing had to mean that at least one of the children would die, or that she herself would. Once she learns that that is not the case, she is able to accept the mixed blessing of a painful pregnancy, because it will end well; with difficulty perhaps – the pain, and the ongoing competition and enmity between the sons - but with birth, life, achievement, and degrees of success.
This approach accepts the inevitability of conflict, hardship, and pain, in trying to give birth, to create, to make something new. Birth is actually a very important and helpful example for us of how blessings are mixed, and what that means. Giving birth to a child is perhaps the biggest, most basic human blessing there is, and yet it is inevitably a mixed one, accompanied, as it is, with pain, struggle, and difficulty. But the hope that it will bring with it new life, the knowledge that, at the end of the painful process, a blessing will come (and bring subsequent, different forms of both possibility and pain with it) makes it possible to live with the inevitable sorrow involved.
The Ramban adds an interesting element to this. He says that perhaps, once Rivkah was told not to worry about her strange pregnancy, had its cause explained to her, and was told that things would work out all right, the pain actually stopped. He postulates that once the information of Yaakov and Esav’s inborn enmity had been transmitted, they would now rest, and Rivkah would find peace, and respite from the pain.
According to this, it may well be that knowing that conflict is a natural part of the things we wish for, that blessings are, naturally, usually mixed, helps us focus on the prize, and not the pain. Knowing that the process is never completely smooth, without a price, or a downside, enables us to experience even the negative aspects of the blessings we receive as something other than pain.