March 8, 2021 |

Why Am I?

In our 13 years of marriage I have been fortunate enough to learn what it is like to live with a pregnant woman. During this time, I have heard some great one-liners during the gestation period.

There was the one and only time Rhanni said, ?Lets do something exciting tonight.? Then she looked down and noticed that from out of nowhere her water suddenly broke five weeks early.

Or there was the time that, as our second child was literally coming out of the womb the doctor turned to me and said, ?Do you want to pull the baby out?? I nearly fainted.

Or the time, that Max looked at his mommy at the end of the ninth month and asked, ?When is the baby going to come out of its cage already??

Or my personal favorite, as Rhanni was about to give birth, the nurse looks at her and says, ?Can you hold on one minute, I have to use the washroom??

In this week?s portion we see the ultimate one-liner. After years of barrenness and prayers, Rebecca finally becomes pregnant, only to discover that the pregnancy is extremely difficult. The children are fighting inside her womb. She is deeply distressed and she exclaims, ?Im keyn lamah zeh anokhi, if this is the case why am I??

Nachmanides teaches that she is asking a simple question: ?Lamah zeh anokhi baolam, why do I exist in the world?? What is the point of existing if my children will be fighting? Why do I need this struggle and this difficult pregnancy? If this is the way it is going to be, why do I need to go on?

The answer she is given is that she has two nations in her womb and they will struggle between each other always and forever. As Rashi explains, ?keshe-zeh kam, zeh nofel, when this one does well, the other one will fail.? There will be an eternal struggle amongst her children.

And this is comforting? What kind of an answer is this to give to a mother? She is complaining about her children fighting in her womb and she is now being told that the reason they are fighting is because they will eternally fight. Great!

So we need to understand that the deeper answer she is being taught is that what is going on in her womb is really a microcosm of the way the world exists. She is no different than anyone else. Life is a constant struggle; one day you are up and the next day you are down.

But the way the Torah formulates this questions shows us that that struggles, the challenges of daily life and how we respond to those obstacles, are the essence of spiritual existence.

Rebecca says ?lamah zeh anokhi,? or why am I? It?s a funny expression to use the word ?anokhi,? meaning ?I? in this context.

Sometimes the most dramatic speeches of all use the word ?I? to drive home a powerful point.

Think about when Nathan Hale said, ?I only regret that I have but one life to give my country.?

Or Lou Gherig?s famous line which echoes powerfully in the movie: I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

The Torah also uses the word I ? anokhi?in the most dramatic occasions. One very famous scene in the Torah is when Jacob goes to sleep and dreams of angels climbing up a ladder to heaven. He awakens from his dream and says, ?Behold God is in this place and I, anokhi, I did not know.?

That scene takes place at the beginning of next week?s portion, but it is really the concluding scene to this week?s portion.

Do you know how many times the word anokhi appears in this week?s portion? A total of seven times.

Every single time it appears it represents a monumental personal crisis about whether or not to continue to struggle or to give up hope completely.

The second and third times it appears is when Esav comes in from the field. He is hungry and desperate. He says, ?ayef anokhi, I am tired.? He says to Jacob, give me some soup. Jacob says, I will only give you the soup if you sell me your rights to the first-born. Esav thinks to himself. Why do I need this first-born anyway? Life is way too hard. I can?t take it anymore. Anokhi holekh lamut, I am going to die. And so he sells away the first-born rights. For Esav the word anokhi is when he faces a struggle and he gives up completely. He caves in. He sells his first-born rights which means he is selling his spirituality, his priesthood, for a momentary taste of food.

The fourth and fifth time the word anokhi appears is when Isaac is told by Hashem, al tirah ki itchah anokhi, do not be afraid for I will be with you.

Why is Isaac afraid? The servants of Avimelekh have just stopped up his wells. So Isaac dug new wells. They came and stuffed them again and again and again. Isaac was frustrated. Everything for him was a struggle. Yet, in the face of this onslaught, he kept digging the wells. He did not give up. In the face of great adversity, he continued on. So Hashem appears to him and says, I know it is not easy for you, but I will be with you, ki itcha anokhi. The anokhi of Hashem will be with you in your struggles.

The sixth and seventh time the word appears it is in the context of Jacob taking the blessings from his brother Esav.

Rebecca hears that Isaac is going to bless Esav and she urges Jacob to act quickly and deceive his father. Rebecca knows what is at stake. The very future of the Jewish people depends upon Jacob getting the blessings and not Esav.

So she urges Jacob to disguise himself like Esav and take the blessings. Jacob says, ?I can?t do it. Esav is hairy and I am smooth, anokhi ish chalak.? Literally, Jacob is saying ?I am not a hairy person and so I can?t deceive my father.? But on a deeper level he is saying: ?Anokhi, I am smooth. It is not in my nature to do this. I can?t act like this.?

But in the end, Jacob does take the blessings from Esav. He recognizes that he has no choice but to take what really should be going to him. And when he takes the blessings from his father he declares ?Anokhi, I am Esav, anokhi esav bechorekhah.? In making this declaration of anokhi, he commits to struggling for eternity. He refuses to take the easy way out. He takes the leap that he will do anything possible to maintain the spiritual legacy of his grandfather, Abraham.

Whether or not you think Jacob was right or wrong for taking the blessings there is a deeper lesson here.

The willingness to persevere and struggle is the essence of what it means to be a Jew and have a deep relationship with Hashem.

People think it is easy to have a spiritual connection with Hashem. They think I will walk into shul and automatically connect to Hashem. And when they don?t connect they get frustrated. ?How can it be that I don?t feel anything,? they ask?

But spirituality is in some ways like a pregnancy?every day is turbulent, sometimes you day feel good and some days, (I am told)?not so good. But we all know what comes at the end of a pregnancy; a beautiful baby arrives. Similarly, at the end of a spiritual struggle there is also a beautiful reward. The fruit of the struggle is a meaningful relationship with Hashem.

In my rabbinate, the people who I meet are the most inspiring are the people who have faced struggles and wrestled with those struggles. From those struggles comes a deeper and often times inspiration relationship with Hashem.

But how do we persevere in the face of this struggle? Before we see the meaning behind the struggle or before we defeat the struggle, how can we persevere on a daily basis?

Here too a spiritual life can guide us.

Do you know what was in the blessing that Isaac gave Jacob? This was a blessing that Jacob went to great lengths to get from Esav, so you would think it was something really special.

One of the things Isaac blesses Jacob with is that God will give to you the mi-tal ha-shamayim, the dew of the earth. What kind of blessing is that? Don?t we all always get the dew of the earth?

Nachmanides explains that this means ?mitat elokim tamid, you will have daily gifts from Hashem.? In other words, the blessing of dew is that you will have a daily relationship with Hashem. On a daily basis you will understand that Hashem is blessing you and this will help you persevere in your struggles.

The way to maintain a steady resolve in the face of adversity is to have a daily relationship with God.

The way we can have a daily relationship with Hashem is through the constant performance of mitzvoth, God?s commandments. This means that we pray on a daily basis, study Torah every day, give charity every day, and do acts of kindness in society on a daily basis.

Dew comes every day, not once a week, or once a month or twice a year.

Some of you might know by now that I talk a lot about the importance of praying every day, and that ideally that should be done in a minyan.

Some people in our shul even have a wager as to how many times I will talk about minyan with them in one week or even one day.

But the reason why I talk about is because I think that daily prayer and daily mitzvoth are the core activities necessary to being a good Jew and to serving God. At the same time a personal benefit of these activities is that they will give us the physical and spiritual strength to succeed and to persevere in our daily struggles.

Life is about a series of never-ending challenges. But if we manage to fight through those we can anticipate an incredibly deep relationship with God. And Hashem in His great kindness gives us his daily commandments to help us on our path of fighting through the obstacles in our way.

The daily mitzvoth will allow us to translate the question of ?Why am I? into the promise of ?I will be with you.?

If we do that then we will be reminded that there is most definitely an anokhi, an I, at the center of the universe, but it is not the personal, I, but the I of Hashem, as in anochi Hashem elokecha?I am Hashem your God.


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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