Friday, November 20, 2009

Struggle - Toledot 2009

"Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others."

Groucho Marks

This is one of my favorite quotations of all time. With these few words, Groucho summarizes some of the truths of the human condition: we are inconsistent, we develop, we change; we live in tension between competing values, expectations, demands; and sometimes, we are pained by the contradictory opinions and beliefs that we hold at the same time, struggling to decide which ones we should follow, strengthen, or abandon at any given moment. At times, it hurts to live in two very different ideas - we don't know what to do, we look for answers. We cry out for help and for the ease of consistency, probably knowing that it will never come. And sometimes we just give up.

The struggling of two boys in the womb, Jacob and Esau, is so painful to Rivka that she goes to either "inquire of God," "demand of God," or "supplicate to God" to try and understand why this is happening to her. These two beings compete inside their mother, literally trying to crush one another. The classic midrash on this verse explains that the movement and struggle would get particularly intense whenever Rivka would pass either a Beit Midrash - a House of Study - or a place of Idol Worship. In the first case, Jacob would try to get out of the womb to go and study Torah while in the second case, Esau would try to rush out to get access to the place of idol worship. How could two so very different children exist inside one womb? In this midrash, which influences many of the commentaries that follow, there is a clear "good choice" and a clear "good son" and a clear "bad choice" and a clear "bad son."

Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezhovski, the Slonimer Rebbe, in the spirit of the midrash I just mentioned, understands the word "sons" in this verse to represent thoughts, specifically good and evil thoughts, pure thoughts and abominable thoughts. The pain that Rivka feels, in the eyes of the Slonimer Rebbe, grows out of the existence of both inclinations, thoughts, inside her. She is a righteous woman - how can she tolerate impure thoughts within her and how can they coexist with goodness? In such a narrative understanding, there must be a clear winner, the good must prevail, and not just for the short term but for the transmission of the blessing and the future fulfillment of Divine promises.

In the world in which we live, however, things are almost never black and white. At best, they are varying shades of gray and we constantly struggle with competing values: environmentalism and convenience; egalitarianism and critical mass; eco-kashrut and expense; universalism and particularism. And when the principles come into conflict, it is just painful, almost paralyzing because we want to do the right thing or we want to do what is best for us even if the consequences of that choice will negatively impact another. What I find more and more often, however, is that the internal struggles are not about good and bad but about competing principles and values where there is no clear good or right but nuances and trade-offs. That is not to say that there are not things that are clearly "bad." There are. But the next time you find yourself being critical of a choice that you know someone made, try to understand the internal competition and pain the other person went through in coming to that decision. You might just learn that it is not as simple or as clear as you thought.

And when the tensions and challenges of living with different principles becomes to great, we scream out "Why me?" While there may be little comfort in the answer that it is not just you, God's answer to Rivka implies that this is normal, that we do live with internal contradictions, that we struggle with ourselves - and that as long as we stay the course and engage honestly in our thinking, then we will make the right decision, the good will triumph, and we will grow as a result.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parashat Toldot 2009


judy said...

Hey Loren,
This hit home with me -since we have been dealing with this precise issue (good/evil, black/white/grey) as a result of an unfortunate incident in our little community....well, it's not for discussion over the internet. Perhaps someday we will get together again (like that enjoyable Shabbat in 2008) and can talk about it. Meanwhile - keep up the good work, you are affecting a lot of people in a very positive way. Shkoyach.

Rabbi Loren Sykes said...

Dear Judy,

Thanks so much. Please drop me an e-mail so that we can discuss!