Image: Two men arm wrestle for cash. (Ryan McGuire / Pixabay)
Poor Rebecca: she is beloved of her husband Isaac but her kids fight something awful.
It started even in the womb:
The children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of the LORD, and the LORD answered her, “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: 22-23
The phrase “If so, why do I exist?” always catches my heart. What does it mean?
?אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִיGenesis 25:22
Rashi says that what she means is, “If the pain of pregnancy is so great, why did I want to become pregnant?” But that is not what she said in this week’s Torah portion.
She feels the children inside her, and she exclaims, “If so, why do I exist?” She questions the whole meaning of her existence as she feels the children “crushing” each other (v’yitro’tzatzu.) The verb means more than “struggle” – it means “crushing” – a battle for absolute dominance. They are trying to kill each other, she feels, and they are not yet even born! Even as they are born, they are fighting, with Jacob trying to pull his older brother back into the womb so that he can be born first.
Rebecca is aware from pregnancy that her sons dislike each other intensely. At the very beginning of their lives, Rebecca cries out, ” If so, why do I exist?” – “If these two hate each other, what is the point of my life?”
One of the developmental tasks of being a parent is the understanding that the child is a separate person. For biological mothers, it is very easy to understand: that baby came out of my body, they were once a part of me, I fed them from my body, I am biologically linked to them by hormones and similarities in our DNA. So how come this kid is doing something I would never do – like try to “crush” his sibling, whom I also love?
Why do parents exist? We human beings are slow developers. Children need care for years after birth, to find food and shelter, to survive predators, to learn the things one needs to learn in order to survive. Children need adults to nurture them, to sacrifice for them, to take sometimes unreasonable risks for them, because otherwise the species would not survive.
We do this for our children, who will always be separate people from us, people who will make different choices than we might have made. Rebecca is feeling the division between the two sons, and it is agony because she still identifies strongly with both.
Ultimately she and Isaac deal with their sons’ mutual animosity by each choosing a favorite child: Isaac preferred Esau, and Rebecca preferred Jacob. Patriarchy and primogeniture set them up for disaster: Isaac identified with the older son, who would presumably inherit everything of worth. Rebecca identified with the underdog, who was much like her: clever and willing to manipulate people and situations for benefit.
This may have been the best they could do. The combative twins are a contrast to their peace-loving parents. Isaac seems to be a mild gentleman, content to stay near home and cultivate his fields and flocks. Instead of waging war on neighbors, he negotiates. He walks in the fields in the evenings to pray. Rebecca is known for her kindness to animals, and her tender care of Isaac. And yet these two peaceniks beget the battling twins, Esau and Jacob! They must have felt completely outgunned by their children.
One of the wonders of the book of Genesis is how bluntly our patriarchs and matriarchs are portrayed in all their fallibility. These are not idealized pictures of saintlike ancestors. Instead, they are real people, who have children they don’t understand.
In my darker moments as a parent, I have thought a lot about Isaac and Rebecca. They wanted to be good parents. I am sure they did the best they could.