Why Do We Exist?

Tol'dot, Genesis 25:19−28:9

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Stacy Rigler

Have you ever felt like nobody was there?
Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere?
Have you ever felt like you could disappear?
Like you could fall, and no one would hear?

These are the opening words to the musical "Dear Evan Hansen." For many of us, myself included, they resonate because we know those feelings all too well. We know them personally, and we may also know people in our lives who feel that way, even when we are there for them. We feel alone, unheard, or unnoticed.

Is that how Rebecca felt? We see glimpses of her inner dialogue at the beginning and end of this week's Torah portion. In the opening verses of Parashah Tol'dot, Rebecca becomes pregnant with twins.

The babies jostled each other within her, and she inquired of Adonai, "Why do I exist?" (Genesis 25:22) There is an answer given, but not to Rebecca's question:

Adonai said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger." (Genesis 25:23)

The answer explains the jostling, but that was not Rebecca's question. She did not ask about the pain, she asked about her purpose; she wanted something to help her push through the pain.

At the end of the Torah portion, Rebecca again asks questions about the purpose of her life. She fears that her son Jacob will, like his brother Esau, marry someone from outside the Israelite tribes. She shares her pain with her husband Isaac:

If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land…, my life will not be worth living. (Genesis 27:46)

Isaac pays attention to Rebecca and tells their son Jacob to travel to his cousins to find a wife, but he does not respond to Rebecca's deeper questions around worthiness.

Both Jacob and God ignore the significant questions Rebecca is asking about her role in this narrative, in the founding of our people, and in her family. Perhaps she is feeling trapped or hopeless, that she cannot cope with her circumstances, and perhaps she wants help.

As a woman I wonder what role the reality of motherhood plays in her understanding of her sense of self. When she asks why she exists, or when she says that her life may not be worth living, these may be indications of her own mental health struggles.

The rise in suicidal ideation, suicide, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse has received a lot of attention in the media, education, and healthcare. Much of the focus has been around access to healthcare, changes in educational focus, and creating healthy lifestyles. Not enough attention is focused on how each one of us, as individuals, may regularly hear others express their concerns, needs, and desire for help. And there has been very little reported on the challenges around peripartum depression that exists for many women. Too often we respond like God and Isaac, trying to solve the problem on the surface, rather than listening closely. Or, when we do hear, we do not know how to help; we worry that we will say or do the wrong thing, or that we will not be enough, so we do nothing.

Several summers ago, when I was on staff at URJ Camp Harlam, I participated in Mental Health First Aid . Mental Health First Aid is a national day-long training that teaches participants the skills to respond to signs of mental illness and substance abuse. Just like traditional first aid, the underlying theory is that even those who are not mental health professionals can learn to identify, understand, and respond to mental health or substance use challenges. The people most likely to be able to help someone struggling with mental illness in the moment of crisis are those closest to the person. What would our community look like if we had the same basic skills for mental wounds that we do for physical ones?

I learned in rabbinical school from my teacher, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, that Torah is not real because it happened, it is real because it happens. In this 3,000-year-old text, we see every element of human expression and relationships. This week, we read Rebecca's words questioning her existence. We cannot diagnose or treat her, or even determine if her question was rhetorical or her comments hyperbolic. We can pay attention to the words she says. The same is true of the individuals in our lives. We cannot know more about what they are saying to us unless we pay attention and respond. Too many of us are hesitant to respond without training, so we do what God and Isaac did, we try to solve the surface problems, or give responses that are not answers. This too can cause harm.

As the song in Dear Evan Hansen promises, "There's a place where we don't have to feel unknown… and every time that you call out, you're a little less alone." As we read Rebecca's story this week, consider what you can do to help this place exist in your home, your synagogue, your place of work, your school. Rebecca asks why she exists. I ask why we exist, if not to ensure that we can be there for one another.

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