A reflection a little longer than usual this week – one which I hope will bear fruit. In parashat Toldot we read the familiar saga of the unfolding of the family of Isaac and Rebekah. This saga of generations reports a great deal of family distresses and distressors—sibling rivalry, helicopter parents, uncommunicative spouses, lack of trust, deception, and parental favoritism, to name just a few.
While there are many lessons contained in these details, there is one that for me arises above all others this week:
Suffering is the subjective experience of our own condition.
Suffering can be the experience of physical, emotional or mental pain. To be clear, it is not that these words of Torah tell us of the suffering of the characters in this portion. As we read about these familiar figures, it is through our interpretation of their actions and reactions that at least I conclude that they are suffering. They seem quite unhappy with what befalls them; they manipulate their life experiences and behave in ways that we can interpret as being responses to being in pain.
In fact, the Torah text repeatedly and directly tells us the opposite: that they were blessed.
- Rebekah receives the blessing of children, for she had been barren (Genesis 25:21—“Isaac pleaded with the Eternal on behalf of his wife [Rebekah] for she was childless, and the Eternal acceded to his plea, so his wife Rebekah became pregnant.”). However, she complains to God of the struggle within her womb (25:22) and again moans to Isaac about hating her life (27:46).
- Isaac receives God’s blessing twice – in his fields and as part of the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 26:12, 24 – “In that area Isaac sowed seed, and in that year he received a hundredfold, for the Eternal blessed him.” and, “That very night the Eternal appeared to him, saying, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham; have no fear, for I am with you, I will bless you and make your descendants numerous for the sake of My servant Abraham.’”). However, both he and Rebekah are inexplicably bitter about Esau taking a Hittite wife (Genesis 26:35) – the same Hittites that treated Abraham with great respect and deference in his purchase of a family burial site at Machpelah.
- Esau receives a parental blessing from Isaac, even though it wasn’t the one he desired. (Genesis 27:39 – “’Bless me, me too, father’, Esau cried out and wept. His father Isaac then responded and said, ‘Lo, among the fat places of the earth shall your dwelling be, and with heaven’s dew from above.’”). Of course, he willingly gave up much of what would have been his for short-term gain and satisfaction when he traded his birthright to satisfy hunger.
- Jacob, we know, receives the first-born birthright from Esau, and the first-born blessing from Isaac (Genesis 25:33 – “Jacob said, ‘Confirm it to me by oath here and now.’ So he swore it to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob.” Genesis 27:27 – “As he came near and kissed him, Isaac smelled the scent of his clothes and blessed him.” Genesis 28:1 – “Isaac then summoned Jacob and blessed him and gave him this instruction: ‘Do not take a wife from among the daughters of Canaan.’”). Jacob lacks compassion and caring, usually a hallmark of someone who is quite unhappy. His only words and actions in this portion are lies; people cannot be generous or benevolent to others when they are empty themselves.
How are we supposed to understand the actions and experiences of our ancestors? How are they not taking note of the blessings in their lives? We suffer when we don’t understand our circumstances, when we question what is happening to us, and when life feels like it is out of our control. Suffering marks the loss of central purpose and is a hallmark of inner conflict. The understanding and expectation of each of these four characters is that life – God – has promised them something; it hasn’t happened yet or hasn’t unfolded in the way and time they expected; our ancestors therefore jump in to manage and direct what they believe God has ignored.
This week, I am suffering – in physical pain, to be sure, and with the losses I perceive and anticipate because of it. Are there blessings in my life as well? Absolutely. They are just harder to see through the pain. Please don’t mistake me: this isn’t about transforming pain and suffering into joy; suffering will never become a blessing. But when I can mindfully stop and take note: here I am, present in this moment – the pain will eventually pass, as everything does. Of what can I let go, so that my expectations do not lead me down a path of spiritual suffering (is there any other kind, really?) The question for me isn’t ‘why’ but ‘what am to do with this’?
When we are in pain or distress, we can hold that pain in bitterness or in compassion, in isolation or in community. We can be open to helping hands, or refuse to believe that we deserve any support. Life is filled with happiness and pain; neither is left out. Suffering is neither inevitable; pain and loss are not the result of personal failing. It becomes a shifting of perspective.
A few other thoughts….
Re suffering and meaning: In 1982, Dr. Eric J. Cassel wrote in an article for the Journal of the American Medical Association: “Suffering can be defined as the state of severe distress associated with events that threaten the intactness of the person.” Isn’t that what is happening for each of our biblical characters here? And he continues: “Transcendence is probably the most powerful way in which one is restored to wholeness…..the sufferer is not isolated by pain but is brought closer to a transpersonal source of meaning, and to the human community that shares those meanings.”
Re suffering and understanding: the poet Rilke wrote: “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves….Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
May Rilke’s words ring true; I pray to see through this present pain, to live in and beyond it, living the blessings in my life that are just as real and true. May you, too, live it all.