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Can There Be Holiness (and a Reason for Thankfulness) in the Midst of Suffering?

It’s so moving in this week’s parasha (Torah portion) Toledot, when Rebecca, in the midst of her pregnancy, cries out to God. We read in Torah: But the children struggled in her womb, and Rebecca cried out,Im ken lama zeh anokhi – If so, why do I exist?’ She went to inquire of the Eternal and the Eternal 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’ (Gen. 25:22-23). We ask, is she complaining? Is she just in pain? Does she wonder if God is punishing her? My teacher Rabbi Jonathan Slater of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality reminds us that Rebecca, as our Sages and teachers hold, is a tzadkanit, a fully righteous woman. It would be unbecoming for her to complain about her lot, to exhibit any sort of doubt of God’s righteous judgment and perfect providence. Her outburst of pain and exasperation does not befit her character. So what is happening here? I ASK: Have you ever found yourself wondering why you suffer in a particular manner? How did you work through your pain? What answers did you find? How did you arrive at them? How did you get through your suffering? Our ancient teacher, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (1740-1810) illuminates the contradictory emotions welling up inside of a suffering Rebecca – she simultaneously wonders if she is being punished for her sinfulness by God (the Ar”i says that righteous women suffer no pain in childbirth – yeah, right!). Rabbi Jonathan Slater interprets Kedushat Levi’s insights: We can understand it in this way. All people experience suffering, and perhaps women – through childbearing – even more so. That generates the fundamental human inquiry: why do I suffer? We probe and inquire, we analyze and assess, all in the effort of coming to an answer. We try to plumb the nature of suffering and to know its source and meaning. Rebecca did just that, and found herself boxed in a corner. She had two theories to explain her suffering, but they turned out to be contradictory in her own experience. She was stymied, almost to the point of despair, of giving up on life. Levi Yitzhak, through this lesson, offers a response: suffering arises from misunderstanding the nature of existence. It comes from seeing a world divided between holiness and impurity, between good and evil, between nation and nation. Suffering arises from participating in the generation of further conflict and opposition, in setting what is in contention with what we want, expect, fear. The way out of suffering is not through reasoning, through dissecting, through analysis; is not through seeking explanations. Rather, it is indeed through turning to God, where oppositions do not exist, where only good prevails.What do you think?

[Some pre-Shabbat Learning, adapted from SELECTIONS FROM KEDUSHAT LEVI, by Rabbi Jonathan Slater of the Ongoing Text Study Program, of The Institute for Jewish Spirituality]

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