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Big Questions (Toldot)

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.

QsIn 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?

Shabbat shalom!


  1. Excellent post and shared with a group with whom I am discussing the subject of “competing values”. Bang on topic for that, and you express a fundamental truth about Jewish life and halacha that is founded on complex and conflicting values in a delicate balance.

    You also got me thinking about the word למה in Tanach, and I looked it up and noticed it is used as follows:
    G-d, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, G-d, Lavan, Rivka, Esav, Rivka, Rivka, Yaakov, Lavan, Lavan, Angel, Yaakov, Yaakov, Yosef, brothers and I’ll stop there at chapter 44.

    I’m wondering if there’s a pattern here.
    To throw out an initial idea: perhaps we can claim that G-d is trying to teach humanity to ask why – modelling it for Cain. But not one of Noah, Avraham and Yitzchak ask why, even though Noah and Avraham were faced with divine destruction and Yitzchak was bound to the altar by his father without being given a reason. The only people asking why in the earlier part are negative characters – Esav and Lavan – and Rivka, who learned it from her father.
    Yet, perhaps that is precisely why Rivka had to come into the family, to introduce a certain questioning, thinking streak that was necessary for Am Yisrael to be the thinking, hutzpadik nation it was to become. This successfully transfers down to Yaakov, then to Yosef, and finally the brothers who are the fathers of the nation.

    This idea probably needs more work – happy to hear suggestions.


    p.s. In line with Rabbi David Fohrmann’s approach that examines similar words, the word עלמה is also interesting – the first person to be described thus is Rivka, in fact. And later, it’s Miriam when she is carrying out an incredibly chutzpadik plan.

    • Alex says:

      Thank you very much! I’m so glad to hear you found good use for it and that others did as well.
      The עלמה point is fantastic!! I’ve already shared it with others here.
      Interesting suggestion on the development of “למה.” My hesitations would be (a) למה isn’t the only way to ask “why?” (though perhaps it is unique in connoting “to what end?” or “for what purpose?”). Consider, for example, Yitzchak’s use of מדוע in this week’s parshah (interestingly, the first time the word is used in the Torah). (b) Avraham does, after all, ask for justification in the case of Sodom (though he does not do so specifically in the language of “למה”), so it would be hard to argue that it was Rivkah who introduced this instinct into the family.
      That said, I’m open to thinking about this further and would welcome further ideas you have on the matter.
      Shabbat shalom!

  2. Shalom Carmy says:

    1. Phrase Lamma Zeh Anokhi stands out because the simple meaning of the words is not clear– It sounds like a question about identity. 2. In Modern Hebrew, standard view is that Madua is connected with cause and Lamma with purpose. I don’t know that this works consistently in Tanakah: I suspect tha Lamma is more versatile.



  3. Very interesting, Alex. Two notes:

    1. As a baal koreh, one notices that למה אשכל has the accent on the מה, thus emphasizing the absence of purpose. Somehow that datum needs to be part of the mix.

    2. Also, I think one of the general challenges in literary analyes of miqra is the tendency to look at positive cases but miss negative cases. In particular, it is interesting to note the occasions where the question of life’s purpose in the face of mortality/limitations appears but the language of למה is not used. This question is particularly salient I think because it appears in these very same sugyas where למה is used in this way. I’m thinking specifically of Yitzchak’s motivation for wanting to confer a blessing on Esau (לא ידעתי יום מותי) and Rachel’s entreaty to Yaakov, הבה לי בנים ואם אין מתה אנכי. Each of these cases could easily be framed in terms of למה but they weren’t. Is that significant? What principle might we use to decide that, and whether to include these cases as part of the same set as the others?

    The only thing I can think of is that Yitzchak and Rachel were up against biological limitations– Yitzchak’s blindness and apparently impending death; Rachel’s failure to conceive– whereas the other cases are about dilemmas that the characters have. The one exception is perhaps Rivka’s first למה, which would seem to pertain to a biological limitation– her inability to cope with the ruckus her twins were making inside of her. But perhaps the midrashim on this are hinting that this is not a normal situation for a mother [have you ever heard of a mother being so distraught by her fetuses that she questioned her purpose in life?], and that she must have intuited that she would give birth to twins who would be locked in strife; and so her dilemma concerned uncertainty about the role she would have to play as their mother.

    • Alex says:

      Thanks Ezra! Some thoughts in reply:
      1. Duly noted, but I’m not sure if this places the “למה” of “למה אשכל שניכם” in a lexical category distinct from the others. Even-Shoshan does not distinguish between the two forms of למה in his concordance, and my cursory look at entries of the form “למה אשכל שניכם” would seem to suggest that they hold the same range of meaning(s) as those of the other form.
      a) Re: the general methodological point — 100%; you’ve articulated one of the most difficult challenges posed by this method of study.
      b) In terms of our specific case: I think you point towards a possible answer by suggesting that the use of למה may be significant in setting off certain cases from others (at least within the context of this parshah — see next point). The major distinction that arises to my mind is that the “למה” cases in our parshah all involve a direct dilemma between competing values (or, to be even more precise about it: a dilemma such that the upholding of a given value will actually serve to undermine that value, given the real-world context in which that decision must be made). At the very least, I don’t perceive the same urgency of choice in other cases highlighted.
      c) Of course, there are instances of “למה” throughout Chumash and Tanach that don’t involve direct dilemmas. One of the methodological assumptions I’m working with in this piece is that we can treat a parshah as a self-contained literary unit; that is, that if a given mode of speech or verbal motif is repeated frequently within a given parshah, then it is relevant to consider those instances as interacting within their own context. Especially in this parshah, where our cases all involve members of the same nuclear family, and all pertain to the same constellation of issues i.e. those relating to the birth/birthright of Yaakov/Esav, I think it reasonable to suggest that the questions being posed may somehow relate to each other (and may have been tagged with the same leitwort to highlight precisely that); that they may take their cues from each other; may build off each other; and may, perhaps, push back against each other, too.
      d) Separate from (b) and (c) — I wonder whether the particular psychological phenomenon associated with a given literary phrase needs to be exclusively communicated through that phrase in order for the literary analysis to stand. If there were other cases in our parshah of dilemmas the sort of which I assign to the language of “למה,” I would certainly wonder why למה was not used in those cases, but I’m not sure whether their exclusion would, of itself, undermine the analysis. Real people don’t speak with literary criteria in mind, of course; within reasonable limits, then–the exact contours of which admittedly elude me–I think that the general trends which literary tools help us observe can be regarded as significant without our expecting that accounts whose purpose it is to report real-world events would conform perfectly to these platonic literary categories.

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