“At a time when modern culture enforces the separation of Church and State, religion and faith seem to have taken a second role in our society. Our generation is forced to both actively practice faith or completely leave it behind.”
It was last Thursday night when this quote came across my desk. I was leafing through reflections from the 33 student participants in the Interfaith Dialogue Project that I have been privileged to facilitate this past semester. This week the group of Jewish, Muslim and Christian students debated the role of faith in society, particularly as it relates to their own college-aged generation. This student so concisely summed up the mood in the room – the tension that this unique group of religiously observant students on campus felt, negotiating between their beliefs, and the decisions they make daily living as 18-21 year olds in College Park, Maryland. They vented about their own spiritual journeys, some far more confident than their fellow students still questioning their beliefs and wondering if they even have a place at the table of a faith-based dialogue.
While recent data may suggest that the high level of doubt and discomfort with traditional faith institutions among college-aged students is unique to this generation, questioning one’s beliefs has been common throughout time. In this week's parsha, Toldot (literally generations), we learn about one such example of questioning and exploration as the third generation of Jews enters the world.
In Toldot, we are introduced to Jacob and his twin brother Esau. The story begins with the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca. After 20 childless years of marriage their prayers are answered and Rebecca gives birth to the twins – Jacob following Esau, grabbing onto his heel. Esau grows up to be "a cunning hunter, a man of the field," while Jacob is "a wholesome man" and a dweller in the tents of learning. One day, upon returning tired and hungry from the fields, Esau sells his rights as the first born to Jacob for a pot of red lentil soup.
Jacob is favored by Rebecca, while their father Isaac loves Esau. As Isaac ages, he wishes to bless Esau with his birthright before he dies. While Esau goes off to hunt for his father's favorite food, Rebecca disguises Jacob as Esau, covering his skin with fur to simulate the feel of his hairier brother, and sends Jacob to his father with the favorite dish. Fooled by the disguise, Jacob receives his fathers' blessings for "the dew of the heaven and the fat of the land " and mastery over his brother. When Esau returns and the deception is revealed, all Isaac can do for his distraught son is to predict that he will live by his sword, and that if ever necessary, the younger brother will forfeit his supremacy over the elder. Jacob leaves home to escape the wrath of his brother and to find a wife among the family of his uncle Laban.
While Toldot teaches us a great deal about the grandchildren of Abraham, and their stories as they grew into biblical leaders in their own right, these famous twins offer us insight into basic Jewish values even before they were born. Rebecca's pregnancy with the twins was not an easy one. These divinely-granted children struggled in her womb, and she cried out to God, "If so, why do I exist?" She asks God why she feels fighting within her. Isaac and Rebecca's prayers and demonstrations of faith result positively with fertility, but negatively with the painful pregnancy. Could Rebecca's cry of despair be a questioning or even rejection of her earlier faith in God?
Rashi, a medieval Jewish commentator, does not think so. He explains that Rebecca's "why me" exclamation can be read as, "If the pain of pregnancy be so great, why is it that I longed and prayed to be pregnant?" From Rashi's perspective, Rebecca does not doubt God, rather herself for having longed for so many years to become pregnant. Rashi warns us not to doubt God's intentions, rather to be careful for what we wish for in the first place.
But Ramban disagrees with Rashi and argues that Rebecca's cry is in fact indicative of her own questioning of faith and God. According to Ramban, Rebecca is unable to cope, and questions her own existence on earth, and in doing so questions the destiny that God has laid out for her. She cannot comprehend why God's plan for her involves such pain, and this forces her to question God's actions.
Questions have long been at the heart of Judaism. "From the inception of Judaism, questions are used to elicit important information and to challenge," says Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of the book, A Code of Jewish Ethics. Genesis is filled with questions: when God asks Adam “Where are you?” or when God asks Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” These questions were God’s attempt not simply to gather information from Adam and Cain, but to challenge these men. God clearly challenges Rebecca with the difficult birth, and Rebecca’s questioning of God demonstrates her own challenging of faith, God, and of herself.
In Rebecca’s case her question results in answers. God answers Rebecca's cry with, "There are two nations in your womb," and that the younger will prevail over the elder. Rebecca is to mother two future nations. Her pain, doubt, and questioning aside, Rebecca gives birth to the twins, raises her children, and takes the appropriate steps to help Isaac prevail over his older brother.
Similar to young people today, Rebecca's questioning may reveal her doubts about faith and her place in it. Rebecca was comfortable to reaffirm her commitment to faith, rather than leaving it behind. Today those decisions may not come as easily, particularly when many believe that the opportunities to participate in the religious world are not so black and white. What we do learn from Rebecca is that though the answers to our own personal explorations may be more challenging than the questions themselves, we too should accept the challenges life brings us. And as another student in the dialogue says, “Remember, there is no right or wrong when it comes to faith. Explore. Find yourself. And once you find what’s important to you, don’t let it go.”
Written by Julie Finkelstein, Jewish Student Life Coordinator at the University of Maryland Hillel
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Toledot at MyJewishLearning.com.