The Torah conceives and births generations of children before we hear a woman’s voice speak of what it is to be pregnant. In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Toldot, we hear Rebecca, the second matriarch of the Jewish people, in response to her twin pregnancy: “The two children wrestled within her, and she said, ‘If so, why am I here?’ She went to search for God, who said, ‘Your body contains two peoples, and two nations will divide within you.’”
A year ago, pregnant with the being who would become my second child, these words echoed through me. I sat with a friend that week as she learned that she would not be able to carry her pregnancy to term. The two poles of possibility in a wanted pregnancy, of new life and of great loss, flickered in those moments. In the months that followed, well-wishing friends and strangers wondered over my growing belly about what they saw as near-certainties – that a baby would be born, at a certain time, that it would have a gender. I tried to join in their excitement, while feeling at my core–my heart with my friend–the agonizing reality that anything can happen.
In Parshat Toldot, Rebecca lives this tension; her experience as told in the Torah and rabbinic midrash brings us into the uncertainty with her—and into each pregnant moment of life that holds within it multiple possibilities.
“The two children wrestled within her.”
Rebecca knows her twins in utero as if they are already fully formed. One midrash anachronistically describes their internal wrestling as running towards different institutions that Rebecca passes on her way – Jacob running towards the batei midrash, the houses of Jewish study, and Esau running towards the batei avodah zarah, the houses of foreign worship. Rebecca is feeling not just fetal movements, but the entire future potentials of these two beings, driving towards their particular destinies. She invites us to see that there is something in the experience of pregnancy that holds not only the developmental moment, but all of its possible destinations at once.
In the Talmud, a famous hevruta or study pair discusses this wrestling: Rabbi Yochanan says that the twins are trying to kill each other, and Resh Lakish says that each is annulling the other’s commands–that is, each is saying that the other’s future vision will not come to be. This is not simply the wrestling of twins struggling for space in a crowded womb, but the pregnant struggle on the part of two possibilities—existing side by side, equally strong, equally unknown– to emerge into reality, striving to annul the decree of the other and to come into being.
To be pregnant is to contain this wrestling. Being pregnant means holding the vast span of possibilities, each in the fullness of its fruition, all at once. The blue or pink “gender reveal” party holds no candle to the many variations of joy and loss that are possible in the span of a pregnancy or the life of a human being born.
“If so, why am I here?”
Carrying the wrestling, holding all of it within herself, tears at Rebecca’s very being. Nachmanides, 13th-century Spanish commentator and philosopher, reads her suffering as a total existential crisis: halevai eineini – I wish that I didn’t exist. It would have been better never to come into the world at all than to know the pain of containing these different realities. And yet, even from that place of losing herself, Rebecca is able to continue. It is her willingness, and the willingness of women in every generation before and after to physically carry the simultaneous terror and joy of pregnancy, that allows us all to be.
But how do we move through it? A midrash describes Rebecca, in her moment of crisis, seeking out other women, knocking on doors, desperate to know something of how others had been able to hold within them the wrestling possibilities and yet continue to be. The other women shared with her their own stories – some similar, but each unique. In the telling, in the listening, they brought each other comfort.
“She went to search for God.”
As she made herself a vessel for her children–holding them in the fullness of their being, whatever they would become–Rebecca knew that she needed to be held. For the strength to encompass divergent possibilities, she turned to the One who encompasses all, who holds with compassion the entirety of being. The poet Yehuda HaLevi wrote, addressing the Divine, “Before I came into being, your kindness was upon me.” It was this Divine essence that Rebecca searched for – holding all the possible outcomes with great kindness and mercy, whatever and whomever might emerge.
In a midrash on the world coming into being, the ancient rabbis tell the story of angels arguing about whether humanity should be created – those sure of human goodness arguing for us, and those sure of our evil arguing against us – but as those angels argued, God just created, full of kindness towards all the possibilities. Rebecca seeks and finds this Divine attribute, embedding it in the wider human experience as she finds the courage simply to continue to be. Her story is an invitation to all of us to live with uncertainty – to hold gently each possibility in its fullness, to seek company for the journey, and to live with both joy and loss whenever they emerge.
Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman is a rabbi and educator in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Ordained by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, she has served as assistant rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation (MN) and of Congregation Kehillath Israel (MA).