We’re still several months removed from Pesach, yet this week’s parshah offers us an opportunity to begin thinking already about a set of “four questions.” These are not the four questions of the seder night, of course. Instead, we might call them the “four whys.”
Four times in this week’s parshah we find the members of Yitzchak’s family asking themselves “למה”—“Why?” And the first three of these “whys” sound strangely similar to one another. First, Rivkah asks “why” at the height of her pregnancy: “And the children struggled within her, and she said: ‘If it be so, why [למה] am I thus?’” (Gen. 25:22). Second, Esav asks “why” before selling his birthright: “Behold, I am going to die—so why [למה] do I need this birthright?” (Gen. 25:32). Third, Rivkah again asks why, before instructing Yaakov to flee from the wrath of Esav, whose firstborn blessing he had just claimed from their dying father: “Arise, flee to my brother Laban, to Haran… until your brother’s rage subsides from you, and he forgets what you did to him, and I will send and bring you from there. Why [למה] should I be bereft of both of you on one day?” (Gen. 27:43-45).
Pay close attention and you will notice something intriguing about these first three “whys:” all of them concern matters of life-and-death. As her pregnancy develops complications, perhaps even poses risks to her own health, Rivkah questions the wisdom of having prayed to conceive in the first place (see Rashi). As he languishes in hunger, Esav questions how much value his birthright really holds, relative to the bowl of lentils Yaakov offers him in exchange for it. As she faces the prospect of her children killing each other over this birthright, Rivkah questions whether it makes sense to insist upon living in close proximity of them both.
In each of these situations, then, Rivkah and Esav must choose between a given ideal, on the one hand, and survival, on the other. And, at least rhetorically, they repeatedly opt for the latter. These are rational choices in all cases, for to do the opposite—to cling to the ideal in the face of the reality before them—would not merely court danger or death. No: the depth of the dilemma confronting Rivkah and Esav here is that, were they to decide in favor of their ideals, and against the dictates of practical prudence, they would actually undermine the very ideals they purport to profess.
See, Rivkah wishes to add life to the world. Esav would like to hold on to his covenantal birthright. Rivkah wants to keep her sons close to her, and to each other. Well, now—if Rivkah adds life at the cost of her own life; if Esav holds to the blessing of his birth, yet dies before he can fulfill it; if Rivkah keeps her family together only for her children to then tear each other apart—will their values have then been productively served? Certainly not. On the contrary: The paradox, in these scenarios, is that the best way for Rivkah and Esav to uphold the ends they value is, in fact, to forego them. Unless they let go, temporarily, of their ideals, their commitment to those ideals will prove self-defeating.
So the sorts of trade-offs contemplated here are most profound indeed. And the pragmatic idealism which underlies them is, in fact, central to the Jewish worldview. “You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them” the Torah tells us (Lev. 18:5)—from which our sages infer: “‘live by them’—but not die by them’” (Yoma 85b). Though there are many ideals—each expressed through a different mitzvah, or “commandment”—that we cherish as Jews, nearly all commands are cast aside before the principle of “פקוח נפש דוחה…”—“saving a life trumps it.” Better to preserve a life than to observe the Shabbat, our sages taught, should ever there arise a conflict between the two. In the words of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel: “desecrate one Shabbat in order to observe many Shabbats” (Shabbat 151b). To keep this Shabbat yet lose all future Shabbats in the process would be ineffectual. Thus, we must constrain conscience by capacity; actually, that is the only way to effectively exercise our conscience at all.
And yet, this approach is not without contradictions of its own. For while it may seem counterproductive to sacrifice our lives for the sake of our values, there is also something subtly Sisyphean, if you think about it, when we do the opposite: that is, when we put our values on hold for the sake of our lives. For if even our deepest held values consistently take backseat to the exigencies of existence—if we spend a lifetime pushing off what matters, just so that we can push off our mortality—then we have fooled ourselves into pursuing the most futile ends of all. Each time we make this compromise, we do so—justifiably—for the sake of the long-term; and yet ironically, if we always make this compromise, then we will discover, at the end of that long-term, that we have in fact been terribly short-sighted. Because the thing is, mortality will come. It cannot be avoided. So if, when push comes to shove, our greatest priority is our own survival—if nothing that we live for is ever more important to us than life itself—well, then, we have doomed ourselves to disappointment from the very get-go.
Here, then, is the crux of the matter: for our values to be livable, we must be prepared to choose life over our values; but for our lives to be valuable, there must be some values which we are prepared to choose even over life itself. Since we cannot live forever, we secure our “slice of eternity” only through values that do. That is the only way for life to be meaningful: by making itself about more than its own perpetuation; by pointing beyond itself, even—if necessary—at the expense of itself. And so it is that even pikuach nefesh, the sacred imperative to “choose life” (Deut. 30:19), is, in the rarest of cases, cast aside in Jewish law. If our lives are to matter in any real sense, then something must matter to us even more.
The goal, of course is not to make this choice, in practice—we pray we will never have to, and indeed, most of us never will. But this is about mindset. It is about asking ourselves, what am I willing to exert myself over? What am I willing to strain myself over? What means enough to me that I am willing to sacrifice for it—not my life, I hope, but perhaps my living—that is, my financial resources? Perhaps my comfort, materially or socially? Perhaps my security? Perhaps my time—the currency of life itself?
It is from this mindset that the fourth “why” of our parshah is finally posed—a “why” fundamentally different than all others posed to this point:
“And Rebecca said to Isaac… “if Jacob takes a wife of the daughters of Heth like these, from the daughters of the land, why [למה] do I live?” (Gen. 27:46).
Here Rivkah argues before Yitzchak that their son, Yaakov, must flee. Both parents know that Yaakov’s continued presence in Esav’s midst has become unviable. Yet it is theoretically possible for Yaakov to escape from Esav without abandoning Canaan entirely. Let him merely resettle to some other place in this country. Perhaps that would be easiest. After all, Yaakov’s family has sowed its roots here; both his father and grandfather have amassed personal fortunes in this land, and have achieved formal alliances with some of its most powerful political leaders. And—best of all—Yaakov would have his pick of eligible marriage partners among the region’s cultural elites. Surely this would be the most convenient way for Yaakov to continue his clan’s covenantal mission. It would not only ensure his own continuity, but also the continued ties of his clan to its covenantal territory.
Yet it would also strip that covenant of its content. It would make it virtually impossible for Yaakov to found a family that carries forward the content of that covenant, the values which it represents, with any real conviction. And replacing the content of the covenant for the convenience of formal continuity is not something that Rivkah can countenance. Some concessions to expedience she is willing to consider. But as a parshah full of such concessions draws to its conclusion, Rivkah insists that, at some point, the calculus must be recalibrated. For if we always place the viable above the valuable, we may make our lives a little easier; we may make them a little longer; but the existential challenge still nags—“למה לי חיים”—what, indeed, are we ultimately living for?
So much of human life is spent towards its own maintenance. “The dead cannot praise the Lord” noted the psalmist, observantly (Ps. 115:17)—the first step towards living for something larger than ourselves is, of course, simply living, and doing what it takes to keep on doing so. But while we must invest in our “חיי שעה,” our “temporal life,” and must do so seriously, we must also remember that if it is here alone that we invest, then we will necessarily find ourselves yielding diminishing returns. So we must be honest with ourselves. Each time the demands of “חיי שעה” rub up against those of “חיי עולם,” of “eternal life,” we must ask ourselves, along with those in this week’s parshah: “למה”—“Why?” Why am I making the choices that I am? Why am I working so hard for the needs of my “חיי שעה?” Am I doing so unduly? Or am I truly doing so for the sake of my “חיי עולם”—in order to sustain my service of what really matters?