There is a moment in this week’s parasha – a story just a few sentences long – that captures two peak moments of human experience: birth and death. Jacob and his family are journeying to their new home, and as they are traveling, Rachel goes into labor. Even as she is giving birth to new life, bringing joy to Jacob as a second son of his favorite wife is finally being born, her own life is fading. Given the medicine of the time, birthing a human into the world was a dangerous event for both mother and child; in this moment of life beginning, Rachel’s life comes to an end. Before she takes her last breath, Rachel names her newborn son Ben-oni, meaning “child of my suffering.” Rachel gives her son a name that memorializes the greatest loss she can experience. As she gives life to her son, her own life ebbs away.
Coming into sobriety – whether for the first time or not – is a dramatic rebirth. Free from alcohol, drugs, and gambling, the brain and the body begin to heal and regenerate. Free from suppression and oppression, emotions burst forth, and spiritual questions – Who am I? Why am I here? Why is my life like this? And what should I do next? – surface for the first time, or re-surface after a long slumber. All of this is its own rebirth, its own new beginning.
Yet coming into sobriety also involves great loss. When we enter recovery, we leave our old identities, lifestyles, and coping patterns behind. We are separated from our roommates, family, friends, and even our beloved pets when we make the choice to enter treatment. As we progress through our healing process and our character defects become removed – as we learn about our good and evil inclinations and come to understand that we must embrace both to become a whole person – we leave behind our ability to remain ignorant and our capacity for denial. The lies we tell ourselves must die a dramatic death – and only the truth of our recovery remains alive. Alone, it lives on.
After the death of his beloved Rachel, Jacob grieved from the depths of his soul. He had worked fourteen years to marry her; he’d had to accept the reality that he could not have her alone, that he had to marry her sister Leah as well. This new son, Ben-oni, was not just the child of Rachel’s suffering; he was also the child of Jacob’s suffering. But Jacob decides, grief or no grief, it is still time to move on. He decides to call his new son by a different name: Benjamin, meaning “child of my strong hand.”
In choosing this name, Jacob calls upon the strength that is at hand when he is willing to let go of what he has lost. Jacob does not cease to grieve for Rachel, and in our recovery, we can continue to grieve our past, our mistakes, and our old ways for as long as we need to. We can be patient with ourselves until we heal, no matter how long it takes. But to tap into our strength, we must not only grieve our great loss. We must avail ourselves of the necessary both/and: we must embrace our rebirth. Grief or no grief, we must move on.
As we move towards this Shabbat in our sacred community and recovery, may we hold space for our loss while we embrace our dramatic rebirth. May we welcome the healing of our physical bodies and the bursting forth of long-suppressed emotions. And may we nurture our spiritual curiosity, as we explore anew the core human questions of who we truly are, and what our life truly means. Together, may we join forces to decide what we can, and what we should, do next.