Rebeccah’s Pain

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Ezra Newman

Three verses into this week’s parsha the reader learns that Rebeccah became pregnant and that her pregnancy was not easy. [1] The reader is then treated to a partial verse of Rebeccah’s internal monologue, a statement that defies easy translation.

:כב) …ותאמר אם כן למה זה אנכי ותלך לדרש את יקוק)

JPS translates this as “…and she said, ‘If so, why do I exist?’ She went to inquire of the Lord:” JPS then adds a helpful footnote, explaining “meaning of Hebrew uncertain.”

What was Rebeccah saying, and what did it inspire her to do? Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Ramban gave three very different explanations.

Rashi wrote that Rebeccah, due to the pain of her pregnancy, prayed to God. This elicits a question; if Rebeccah’s monologue was really prayer to God, what was she doing in the final part of the verse, when “she went to inquire of the Lord”? Was that not also prayer? Rashi explained that it was not Rebeccah praying, rather her going to the beit midrash of Shem for him to consult with God on her behalf.

Ibn Ezra wrote that Rebeccah, due to the pain of her pregnancy, asked other women if this pain was normal. When told that it was not, she then went to inquire of God (through the medium of a prophet) why her pregnancy was unusual.

Ramban wrote that Rebeccah, due to the pain of her pregnancy, turned not towards God or other women, but inwards, towards herself, and lamented that she was still alive. In Ramban’s understanding, Rebeccah’s internal monologue consisted of her wishing that she died or was never born. Then she went to pray. Ramban is silent on whether this prayer was for her pain to end through birth or through her wish being fulfilled.

These three approaches of the commentators accurately reflect different human approaches towards coping with pain and suffering. In their hands, Rebeccah has become the paragon for the different ways humans cope. Some appeal to higher authorities, whether they are God, a rabbi, a prophet or others. Some ask their peers, many who have been through similar experiences, for consolation and assurance. And some turn inwards, occasionally with destructive consequences.

The JPS approach also reflects some truth with regard to human suffering. Often people want a combination of things when they are suffering, and that combination is difficult to distill into clear parts. Oftentimes as well people are simply incoherent or impossible to understand when they are suffering.

Any way it’s construed, this monologue of Rebeccah is unusual when compared with what a reader of Genesis would expect. Rebeccah’s female counterparts in Genesis are most often found grieving over their inability to become pregnant, not the pain they experience while pregnant. Rachel especially expresses tremendous frustration at her inability to become pregnant. [2] Yet Rebeccah expresses nothing verbally about her inability to become pregnant. The reader learns that Isaac prayed on Rebeccah’s behalf because she was barren, and then learns, immediately and matter-of-factly, that she became pregnant. The drama of becoming pregnant does not exist for Rebeccah as it does for Rachel and Sarah.

This should be especially unusual to some rabbinic thinkers, as the pain of lack of pregnancy has taken on unique meaning for them. Earlier this year, Rabbi Binyamin Lau and Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein engaged in a back and forth in Yeshivat Har Etzion’s weekly newsletter, Daf Kesher, over a responsa co-authored by Rabbi Lau and his wife, Rabbanit Noah, regarding supervision of women during mikvah immersions. [3]

Rabbi Lau, when challenged on the validity of the arguments in his teshuva, responded in part by appealing to a broader moral argument of needing to do better by women in general. He ended his response by quoting a Midrash which challenges Jacob’s harsh response to Rachel’s complaints of infertility, stating rhetorically, “כך עונים את המועקות?” Clearly, Rabbi Lau believed that the pain Rachel was feeling about her infertility was comparable in some way to the pain women felt about having to immerse with supervision.

Rabbi Lichtenstein took Rabbi Lau to task on this point. He argued that one can simply not compare the pain felt by women who are unable to become pregnant with the pain felt by women when required to immerse under supervision. The pain of the former is much greater than the pain of the latter.

How would Rabbi Lau and Rabbi Lichtenstein explain Rebeccah’s silence here then? Rabbi Lau puts stock in the pain of lack of pregnancy being representative of pains that all women feel that need to be responded to universally, and Rabbi Lichtenstein puts stock in the pain of lack of pregnancy being of a certain magnitude greater than other female pains. Yet we know Rebeccah had the ability to express pain, it’s written in the next verse. And we know Genesis knows how to convey pain over lack of pregnancy, Rachel managed to do it quite vociferously. So how come Rebeccah is silent?

Maybe Genesis is managing to convey a point that Rabbi Lau and Rabbi Lichtenstein seem to have missed in their back and forth. People are different from one another. People deal with pain differently and people experience pain differently. Maybe instead of large proclamations dealing with entire groups of people as monoliths, we need to traffic in recognizing the differences of the individual.

Making a large public statement on a topic is great for the people who agree with your statement, but is it worth it if you’ve ostracized others who disagree with you? Sometimes it will be and sometimes it won’t be. Assuming a fact about a large group of people works out with regard to the people it is true for, but is it worth it when it misrepresents many others? Sometimes it’s necessary and sometimes it’s not.

Maybe it’s time for us all to put more stock in understanding other individuals, instead of making decisions for or assumptions about larger groups. Healing sometimes comes through mass declarations and statements, but more often comes from understanding the pain and coping mechanisms of unique individuals.



[1] One could interpret “ויתרצצו הבנים בקרבה” differently, but read simply it appears to indicate that the pregnancy was difficult, or at least unusual, physically.

[2] See Genesis 30:1.

[3] Available for download here.


Ezra Newman (SBM 2013), from Silver Spring, MD, is an alumnus of MJBHA, Gush and Cornell and is currently a first year law student at Harvard.

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