Parashat Toldot: If so, why do I exist?

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona.

By Rabbi Josef A. Davidson

In psychological lingo there is a term for an inner conflict between two opposing ideas, desires or needs.  When one experiences this conflict, it is called consonant dissonance.  It is characterized by a figure in the middle of two poles, first moving towards one, and then moving towards the other, then back to the one, over and over again, without ever committing to move towards one or the other.  

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, Rebecca experiences physically this kind of back and forth motion within her.  After years of being unable to conceive, she is pregnant with twins, and the twins literally run this way and that inside of her.  Needless to say, these extremely active fetuses cause her a great deal of discomfort, so much so that she finally reaches the end of her ability to tolerate it and says, “If so, why do I exist?”  In other words, if this pain and discomfort are going to continue, how am I going to be able to live?

A midrash teaches that what she is experiencing is the attraction that each of the twins has to two opposing ideals.  Esau gravitates towards the fields and towards the deities associated with the land by the population among whom the family resides.  Jacob, on the other hand, gravitates towards the yeshivot and schools that teach of the one God.  As Rebecca passes by one or the other of these, the twins run within her.

Perhaps this midrash is actually a metaphor pertaining to Jewish life in general. Within each Jew there is a desire to fit in with those among whom we live. We adapt to the fashions, to the way of marking time, to the language and often to the values of the majority.  We talk about Jewish holidays coming either “late” or “early” but “never on time,” because we mark time by the secular calendar, not by the Jewish one.  Synagogues offer kippot and tallitot because many Jews do not wear them on their own and may not even own these basic items of Jewish dress. The idea that there are kosher substitutes that taste almost identical to the non-kosher products indicates that even with regard to food, Jews want to fit into the general society.

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Yet, the vast majority of Jews are in a synagogue during the High Holy Days.  Passover finds a very large percentage gathered around a table conducting some type of seder.  Hanukkah candles burn brightly, even if there are some that are placed next to the Christmas tree. Many Jews wax nostalgic whenever they find themselves in a Jewish deli and are proud to say that even the Mayo Clinic has studied the beneficial effects of chicken soup with kenedelach when one is afflicted with the common cold. Jewish words have crept into Americans’ vocabulary.  Words such as “schlepp,” “maven,” “shammos,” and “megillah” are used by American Jews and Gentiles alike.

Within each Jew there is a struggle, and at times there may be the temptation to cry out, “If so, then why do I exist?”  At times each Jew experiences consonant dissonance when the general and the Jewish compete for his/her attention.  In the parashah which will be read in two weeks, Vayishlach, Jacob will wrestle in the middle of the night with a formidable opponent.  They are equally matched, so when daylight breaks and his opponent indicates that it is time for him to take his leave, Jacob does so only when he wrests a blessing from the stranger in the night.  That blessing is a change in name from Jacob to Yisra’el, the one who struggles with beings, human and Divine, and prevails.  

In answering the question, “Why do I exist?” it is important to remember that our blessing is to be able to reside in two societies at once, to have one foot in American life and the other foot in Jewish life. At times we will run towards the one, then towards the other. The blessing will come from no longer being in a position of dissonance but in consonance, as were our ancestors as described in the Torah portion.  Yes, we struggle, some more often than others, but we have the hope that ultimately we, too, will prevail.

Shabbat Shalom!