I am incredibly thankful to be a member of this wonderful community. I am particularly grateful that my job is to help others take another step along their spiritual journey; and as a result, I get to witness miracles of transformation.
What happens when we get the thing we think will bring us happiness and joy but when it actually arrives, the reality isn’t as good as the fantasy we had concocted in our minds?
In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, another of our matriarchs, Rebekah, is barren. In fact, she is unable to give birth for 20 years.
In his yearning for a child and out of love for his wife, Isaac pleads to God on her behalf. According to rabbinic legend, Isaac actually takes Rebekah on a trip to Mount Moriah, the location where Abraham almost sacrificed him. And in that same spot he reminds God of his own willingness to surrender and therefore demands God’s intervention.
And after 20 years of hoping and praying, Rebekah is pregnant.
What a time for celebration and joy! Finally, their dreams are going to be realized: they are going to be parents, and all those years of struggle, of tension and unspoken angst when all their friends have had children, are about to dissipate.
But the Torah describes a different experience:
And the children crushed each other in her womb, and she said, “If this is so, why me?” And she went to seek out the Lord (Genesis 25:22).
Rebekah does not appear to be elated, she is forlorn. How could this be, God?! Yes, I wanted children, but I can’t handle this pain that is happening within me! Pregnancy is too much. I’m in a land far from my relatives and nobody told me how difficult this would be!
If this is the reality of this blessing, it’s too much.
Jim Carrey, one of my favorite actors and artists who has gone through his own spiritual journey of transformation, said, “I think everyone should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
Sometimes getting what we want brings about terrible suffering because we are finally able to see that we were chasing a delusion all along. We were chasing an idol or a magic pill that would fix all our problems. When in reality, it was just an escape to cover up our existential anxiety.
For Rebekah, as for many women, the suffering during pregnancy is real. Her pain is overwhelming, and she cannot even talk about it with her beloved. She is momentarily gripped by fear: I need to do this all alone. I’m the one in control, and I’m the only one who can figure it out.
As my lovely wife points out, part of Rebekah’s struggle is that she is only thinking of herself. She doesn’t ask, “Why is this happening to us? Instead she focuses on her own experience and cries, “Why me?”
But Rebekah is also a prophetess, and she seeks an answer from God, who is able to broaden her perspective for the future:
Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger (Genesis 25:23).
Only after seeing the purpose she is serving is Rebekah comforted. Once God reveals to her that her suffering is not without reason but serves a greater purpose, she is able to endure. She sees her role in the unfolding story of the Jewish people and surrenders her will to God’s will.
Our tradition encourages us, “Just as we bless the good, we shall bless the bad.” One potential answer to pain and suffering is living an attitude of gratitude no matter what befalls us. Whether we get what we think we want or we struggle to see the point to our suffering, the vision that God reveals to Rebekah rings true for us as well:
Our lives play an integral role in the transformation of the world.
Rabbi Joseph Shamash