Toldot: Seeking out the Lord

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, begins the story of Yaakov, the
son of Yitzhak, who will eventually become Yisrael, the father of
the 12 tribes. Yaakov’s story begins even before he is born; the
opening verses of the portion tell us that his mother, Rivka
[Rebecca], suffered a difficult pregnancy. The twins in her womb
struggled and caused pain as they developed, foreshadowing
the pain and struggle of their future years.

In fact, Rivka’s pregnancy was so difficult and painful that it
seems to provoke a great sense of spiritual despair, causing her
to question the very meaning of her existence:

” And the children struggled within her, and she said, ‘ If is so,
why do I exist?’ And she went to inquire of the Lord. ” (Genesis
25:23)

I think most of the people reading this have had the experience
of seeing a friend or loved one in such physical or emotional
pain that they think life just isn’t worth living. Yet look at Rivka’s
response to her own despair- she goes to “inquire of the Lord.”
[An alternate translation would be “to seek out the Lord;” the verb
l’drosh can mean seek or inquire.]

In either translation, what’s fascinating to me is that Rivka
doesn’t ask God to relieve her suffering, but to explain it! I
understand this as her attempt to find meaning or context for her
suffering, to find some sense of hope that the future is worth the
difficulties of the present moment.

After all, human beings are capable of incredible strength and
fortitude if they understand their suffering as meaningful- think,
for example, of the recently deceased Christopher Reeve, who
lived an extremely difficult life, but who was determined to use
his experience for the good of others. Another example would be
the thousands and thousands of volunteers who came to New
York City after 9/11, to do dirty and dangerous work, but for a
cause which transcended concerns for comfort and
convenience.

Now, to be sure, I don’t believe that physical ailments are
“meaningful” in the sense that God causes illness or pain for
specific purposes; my theology takes the laws of nature
seriously, and that means sometimes people suffer simply
because things go wrong in their bodies, or because of tragic
accidents. Yet the image of Rivka “inquiring of the Lord” is still
powerful, because it reminds us of the basic human need for
meaning, for context, for gleaning wisdom out of our
experiences. None of those things prevent suffering, but all of
them can redeem it, and give us strength to go on when things
get rough.

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