Midrash

Rebecca: In Search of Answers (More Midrash Ep. 6)

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The Midrash

Bereishit Rabbah 63:6

Biblical Story: Isaac pleaded with Adonai on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and Adonai responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived. But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of Adonai, and Adonai 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.” When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when they were born. (Genesis 25:21-26)

“But the children struggled (va-yit-rotzetzu) in her womb” (Genesis 25:22). Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish [each had an interpretation]. Rabbi Yochanan said: This one ran (ratz) to kill that one and that one ran (ratz) to kill this one.

Reish Lakish said: This one disregarded the commands (matir tzivuyo) of that one, and that one disregarded the commands of this one.

Rabbi Berechyah in the name of Rabbi Levi: That you should not say that only after [Esau] left his mother’s womb did he join with Jacob; rather, while he was still in his mother’s womb his fist was directed against him. Thus it is written, “From the womb are the wicked estranged” (Psalms 58:4).

“But the children struggled (va-yit-rotzetzu) in her womb” (Genesis 25:22). When she would stand in front of houses of worship and houses of study, Jacob would toss about to go out. Thus it is written, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you left the womb I sanctified you” (Jeremiah 1:5). And when she would pass by houses of idol worship, Esau would run (ratz) and toss about to go out. Thus it is written, “From the womb are the wicked estranged” (Psalms 58:4).

“And she said: If so, why do I exist (lama ze anochi)?” Rabbi Yitzchak said: This teaches that Rebecca our matriarch would go around to all the doorways of the women and say to them: Have you in your lives ever experienced this level of suffering? If so [that] this is the level of suffering of [having] children, oh! that I would not have become pregnant!

Rabbi Huna said: If the twelve tribes are destined to be born from me, oh! that I would not become pregnant twelve times (zeh).

They taught in the name of Rabbi Nechemyah: Rebecca was worthy that the twelve tribes should emerge from her. Thus it is written,

“And Adonai said to her: Two nations are in your womb” – this is two
“and two peoples” – this is four
“one people shall be mightier than the other” – this is six
“and the older shall serve the younger” – this is eight
“when her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb” – this is ten
“the first one emerged red” – this is eleven
“then his brother emerged” – this is twelve.

There are others who derive this from the following verse, “And she said: If so, why do I exist (lama zeh anochi).” The zayin equals seven, the hey equals five, this is a count of twelve, the numerical value of zeh.

“She went to inquire of Adonai.” Were there houses of divine worship and houses of Torah study in those days? Rather, she went specifically to the study hall of Shem and Eiver. This is to teach you that anyone who greets an elder is as if they greet the Divine Presence (shekhinah).

Understanding the Midrash

Rebecca, after years of apparent infertility, becomes pregnant with twins. They struggle (va-yit-rotzetzu) within her, and she cries out, inquiring of God, “If so, why do I exist?” (im kein, lamah zeh anochi). What does the struggle mean? How are we to understand Rebecca’s calling out to God, and the odd sentence she utters?

Our midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 63:6, will imagine a response in four parts: (1) a debate on the essence of the struggle; (2) several assertions about nature vs. nurture; (3) Rebecca’s privilege and pain as matriarch of the future twelve tribes; and (4) a note on her connection to the divine.

The Essence of the Struggle

“But the children struggled (va-yit-rotzetzu) in her womb” (Genesis 25:22). Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish [each had an interpretation]. Rabbi Yochanan said: This one ran (ratz) to kill that one and that one ran (ratz) to kill this one.

Reish Lakish said: This one disregarded the commands (matir tzivuyo) of that one, and that one disregarded the commands of this one.

The opening teachings of the midrash give us a debate between Rabbi Yochanan and his close chevruta, Reish Lakish. They have different takes on the meaning of the word I’ve translated as “struggle”, in Hebrew va-yit-rotzetzu. Rabbi Yochanan understands it as related to the root r.v.tz, with a basic meaning of “to run.” In the hifil verb form, then, it would mean to run about, or run back and forth. Applied to our context, there’s a sense of darting about within the womb, and Rabbi Yochanan interprets the movement as enthusiasm to murder. As I imagine the brothers getting closer to each other, I think of the future approach of Jacob and Esau, a fraught situation that might have resulted in Jacob’s death at his brother’s hand, but instead ends up as a tearful reunion as they embrace each other.  

Intriguingly, as in the case of the midrash which imagines Cain and Abel’s hostile argument, both brothers are imagined by Rabbi Yochanan to be involved in the race to fratricide. The normal rabbinic assumption of Jacob as good and Esau as evil is reduced to a statement that points us to seeing that running to kill is the evil force, regardless of who we are talking about.

Reish Lakish, on the other hand, understands the word va-yit-rotzetzu as a pun off two words: matir (to untie, meaning to permit what might otherwise be forbidden, and therefore to disregard), and tzivuyo (his command). His view of the battle in the belly is not that they are trying to kill each other, but rather that they are constantly challenging each other’s authority. They are competing, resisting, and undermining each other at every step (of their mother). Who will be dominant? And at this point, before they are born, they are truly equal, one not older than the other yet.

Note: I ran out of time this week to finish the full essay. I focused on the other part of the midrash in my podcast, so instead of duplicate efforts, this week they are complementary. Please listen if you’d like more discussion, and feel free to comment here, or send me an email / fb message / tweet to share your own thoughts.

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