Community Blog Why Is It? Why This?!
Parashat Toledot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)
Among the many crises that have been developing over the last several years, the United States is facing a raging mental health crisis, a crisis that is particularly concerning among children and teens. Three years into a global pandemic, it is no surprise that all of the uncertainty and the strings of disappointments, losses, and readjustments weigh heavily on people of all demographics. For some, including many young people, the seemingly ever-changing expectations, the pressures not to fall behind, uncertainty about the future, and challenges to identity formation are contributing to rising trends of anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. Public health agencies, medical organizations, and professionals are working creatively and with urgency to meet the growing need, as individuals and families try to hold onto hope while they wait.
Uncertainty, disappointment, and pressure to live up to expectations within an ever-changing environment abound in this week’s parashah, Toldot. Twice in this parashah, a relatively rare turn of phrase appears: lamah zeh?, which translates as something like “Why is it?” or “Why this?” or perhaps, “What is the purpose in this?” This phrase appears ten times in the Torah, including when the Israelite people complain about being brought out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness, and when Sarah laughs at the idea of becoming a mother, long after her potential childbearing years. Four of the instances of this phrase relate to the conflict between Jacob and Esau. In each of these verses, the simpler lamah (“why”) would serve grammatically. The extra word, zeh (“this”), implies greater urgency and emotion underlying the question. I would like to propose that what draws these uses of “lamah zeh” together is an element of giving up, of despair.
The Midrash suggests an array of explanations as to what causes Rebecca such distress when she feels the twins struggling within her, prompting her “lamah zeh” (Gen. 25:22). Maybe the pain was extraordinary, making her wonder if she really could birth twelve tribes. Another midrash suggests she felt Esau straining to get out whenever she passed a place of ill repute and worried that she was carrying a child unworthy of the legacy she was meant to pass on. Whatever her worry, she seems to despair, losing faith that she will be able to fulfill the role she left her home and family to pursue, to become the mother of this new nation.
When Esau declares that he is going to die, so “lamah zeh,” what use is his birthright (Gen 25:32), we also don’t fully understand his worry. As with Rebecca, the midrash provides several explanations. Is he really starving to death right there on the spot? Not likely. Maybe he is convinced that, spending his days hunting, he will eventually be killed by wild animals and die before his father. He could be unable to imagine himself living to have children who will eventually receive his inheritance. One midrash even suggests that Jacob cooks a lentil stew, a funeral dish, to suggest Esau’s imminent death and imply that Jacob will end up inheriting anyway. It is unclear what causes Esau’s fear, but, however he imagines his death, he seems to despair of benefiting from his birthright when he trades it away for a bowl of lentils.
What is striking about these instances of despair, of giving up hope, is that while they feel all-encompassing, they are dynamic states, not static. Both moments of despair occur early in the parashah and could lead us to expect Rebecca and Esau to continue in a similar pattern, to live diminished, passive, ambitionless lives. But we find the opposite. Rebecca continues to play an active role in her children’s lives, favoring and mentoring Jacob, positioning him to receive the blessing of spiritual inheritance, setting him on a path to begin his own family, and protecting him from Esau’s anger. Similarly, Esau, at the end of the parashah, responds to losing his father’s best blessing, not with continued despair, but with persistence, demanding that Isaac offer him a blessing, too. Rather than giving up, at these later junctures, Rebecca and Esau, who have known and overcome despair, find new strength and determination.
How do they find the strength that they lacked in their moments of despair? Rebecca’s path is revealed by the text. Her “lamah zeh” leads her to seek out God’s counsel, and she is told that there are, in fact, already two nations within her womb. She is not going to birth the twelve tribal forebears herself, but a nation full of tribes will come from each of the twins. Her role as the mother of the promised nation is not in question, but she must realign her understanding of what that means. Her expectations are changed, but her purpose remains intact. Her hope returns, and she reimagines and recommits to her path in parenthood and leadership.
Esau’s transformation is not explicit in the text. Between when he trades his birthright and when he is called to Isaac’s deathbed, all we hear about Esau is that he marries two Hittite women whom Rebecca dislikes. We are left to imagine his transformation, his return from the despair that allowed him to give up such an integral part of his future. How does he recover from questioning the worth of his life to fighting for his share of blessing? Maybe it comes with getting married and finding a supportive partner and confidant to help him work through his grief. Or perhaps the shift occurs when he becomes a parent himself, now dreaming of passing something on to future generations and finding meaning in his children’s lives. Maybe releasing the birthright allows him to reimagine his life without the burden of inheritance and legacy that felt so alive in his youth. Or possibly, years of experience doing what he loves, hunting, and living to tell the tale, help him develop the confidence and self-knowledge he needs to accept himself as he is and to believe he deserves to be blessed. Somehow, Esau is transformed, and despair gives way to hope and self-respect.
The two transformations are not the same. Rebecca seeks out God’s help in her moment of despair and is answered immediately, allowing her to recover without notable loss to her opportunities or identity. Esau seems to take longer, and may need to reframe his identity after the loss he incurs in his initial moment of despair. Accessing support early in the crisis makes a difference for Rebecca, but both eventually recover and live to find meaning and purpose in their lives.
Both examples teach us that despair is a real, unescapable, part of life, and that it can be overcome. It feels all-consuming and drives us to question fundamental understandings about our identity, our path, our world and our role in it. But despair need not be the end of the story. We know that despair can drive change in our lives. While it often accompanies loss, it can lead us to reconfigure our identity and our priorities. And behind despair lies the opportunity to emerge different yet still whole on the other side. As many in our country struggle to hold off despair, may our communities be there to hold each other up, to listen, to empathize with and witness the pain, and to remind those in despair that it need not last forever.
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Rabbi Shira Shazeer received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2010 and a Masters’s Degree in Jewish Education, with a focus on special education in 2022. Previously she studied Torah in the Scholars Circle at Drisha Institute for Jewish Learning and music at Goucher College. Rabbi Shazeer teaches in the learning center at Gann Academy. She is a Yiddish enthusiast, a singer, accordion player and occasional composer, and parent to three fabulous kids.