Irit Reinheimer / Rabbis4Ceasefire

“If it is So, Why Am I?” Reflections on Parashat Toldot for This Moment

“If it is So, Why Am I?”

Parashat Toldot, Genesis 25:19-28:9

Rabbi Gray Myrseth was ordained by Hebrew College Rabbinical School in 2017.

Years ago, I had an experience with a congregant who was very angry with me. The exact content of the anger matters less than the fact that I understood both where she was coming from, and also why I had a different perspective on the situation. I listened to her explain why she was furious, how she felt unable to trust me in that moment, how she did not know what would become of our relationship. I listened, and when it was my turn to speak, I said the one true thing I could think of: I don’t know exactly where we’ll go from here, but I believe that our relationship can survive this. I believe we’ll find a way through. 

This week’s parashah contains many moments of crisis within relationship, and my attention was drawn to the first one we encounter. After struggling to conceive, Rivka becomes pregnant, but it is not an easy pregnancy. V’yitrotzetzu habanim b’kirbah—“the children crushed one another within her womb” (Gen. 25:22). 

For so many of us, the past month has carried a crushing weight of grief and horror. The size of the Jewish world means that no one is far removed from a connection to those who died in the brutal attacks of October 7th. The horror did not stop there—it continues, not only for the survivors, hostages and their families, but for all of us who watch as the decimation of Palestinians in Gaza is carried out in our names. And so this moment leaves us holding not only the need for the global Jewish community to grieve, but also the question of what our responsibility is, as Jewish people, to address the ongoing violence. 

There are moments where holding more than one truth may feel unbearable. We might cry out, like Rivka, Im ken, lama zeh anochi—“if it is so, why am I?” (Ibid.) We might also understand “lama zeh anochi” as “what is my purpose?” or “what is happening to me?” Or perhaps: if it’s going to be like this, how can I withstand it? How can my relationships, my belief systems, my relationship with Torah and Hashem survive this struggle within me? 

When Rivka cries out to the Holy One in the midst of her suffering, Hashem gives her a difficult answer, saying that the two children in her womb represent two nations, and one will overcome the other. Rivka and Yitzhak go on to raise their kids in line with this truth, with the idea that only one of them can receive the birthright, only one will get their father’s blessing.

I wonder what could have been possible if, instead, Hashem had replied to Rivka in a way that offered no scarcity of blessing. I wonder if Rivka and Yitzhak would have been able to parent differently, to break the cycle of inherited trauma that I imagine Yitzhak carried down from the mountain where his own father was prepared to sacrifice him. 

Two weeks ago, I joined what is now over 180 rabbis and rabbinical students who have signed onto a letter that calls for an immediate ceasefire and return of all Israeli hostages. This Monday, November 13th, many of us gathered in front of the Capitol in Washington, DC to raise up our prayers. To cry out in service of life, safety, and well-being for all people, as our Torah and tradition require of us. 

This group of rodfei shalom, pursuers of peace, represents a wide range of religious and political orientations. We do not agree on everything. We do not have to have a shared answer for what happens after the ceasefire. That does not prevent us from working together to save lives.

In that collective, I see people holding the acuity of grief for loved ones killed in Israel and Palestine—and the urgency to speak out now both for the return of the Israeli hostages and for the protection of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. I see people willing to risk relationships and jobs, willing to risk having their love of Torah and Bnei Yisrael called into question, in order to follow our Judaism’s teaching that every human being is an olam maleh, an entire world, and our tradition obligates us to save lives whenever we possibly can. 

I worry about voices within the Jewish community saying that we must hold the truth of Jewish suffering to the exclusion of other truths—even going so far as to prevent community leaders from advocating for a ceasefire, when some families of those currently being held hostage in Gaza and families of victims of the October 7th attack are themselves speaking out for an end to the violence. 

For weeks after our initial conflict, my congregant continued to be angry with me. She asked how I could have let her down so badly, and challenged the idea that I did indeed care about her. It was not easy, but I continued to show up to each encounter grounded in the understanding that I did care, I could hold both her truth and mine, and our relationship would survive. Over a year later, she confided in me that she was tempted to stop showing up, to turn away from the pain of our difference. But she did not—and our relationship did survive. 

And what did that look like? We went on to know one another across years and lifecycle moments, and over time, we rebuilt trust and she was open to experiencing my care. In the midst of the pandemic, approaching the bar mitzvah of her son, she said to me: “the fact that I was once so mad at you and you kept showing up has changed my understanding of what’s possible in relationship.” 

What she did not know is that in saying this, she was also expanding my understanding of what was possible. When I first told her our relationship would survive, I was speaking my prayer into the universe. I wasn’t sure, but by moving into the unknown, we learned together what could be.

Today, I am putting words to a prayer with unspeakably higher stakes. Like Rivka crying out to Hashem, seeking purpose and orientation in the midst of suffering, I join the rabbis for ceasefire in crying out from within our grief. I hope that the reply we hear from our beloved communities will be brave and expansive, embodying the strength and resilience of the tradition we have inherited. 

In calling for a ceasefire, I know that this action only increases my ability to attend to the fear and grief and deep need for healing within our Jewish communities. I pray for connection and care for all those who are experiencing estrangement from their families, from their Jewish communities, and from their loved ones in this moment. 

In this week of Parashat Toldot, I pray that we have the courage to hold both our pain and the pain of others. That we tend to our grief and also speak out bravely any time there is the hope of saving lives. That when we encounter places of deep difference within Bnei Yisrael, we keep showing up and believe that this too is something our relationships can survive. 

One thought on ““If it is So, Why Am I?” Reflections on Parashat Toldot for This Moment

  1. I appreciate your ability to speak from a place of prayer and hope for our community to hang together and respect each other’s points of view. Your sharing of how you worked with an issue with your congregant that might have pulled you apart, but instead became a model of holding onto the strength of your relationship. I also pray that we find ways to stay within the struggle because I truly believe that we are ALL worthy of blessing. Thank you so much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.