Saturday, December 16, 2017

The ultimate irony:

It’s not fair. After years of barrenness, Rivkah finally becomes pregnant, only to discover that the children she and Yitzchak have prayed for are fighting inside her womb. She is deeply distressed and exclaims, “Im kein, lamah zeh anochi, If this is the case, why am I?”

Ramban interprets this question as, “Lamah zeh anochi baolam, Why do I exist in the world?”  What is the point of existing if my children will be fighting? 

The answer Rivkah is given, “Shnei goyim b’vitnech,” is startling to any mother-to-be. She is told that she has two nations in her womb and that they will struggle forever. We see in this week’s parsha that this prediction actually came to fruition as Yaakov and Esav approach each other, ready for war.

God says to Rivkah, “You exist in the world for the sake of this struggle.” What’s going on in Rivkah’s womb is a microcosm of the way the world really exists—ups and downs and backs and forths, highs and lows.

Yitzchak already knew about ups and downs. One day, he was going to be a korban (sacrifice) on Har HaMoriah at the hand of his father, and the next, he was the father of a great nation. The distance between euphoria and depression can be a split second.  

There is another way of understanding this eternal tension between Yaakov and Esav. By reputation, Yaakov is an ish tam, yoshev ohalim—a learner. A simpleton. No frills, nothing flashy—just a man who loves to learn. Esav is an ish yodai’a tzayid, ish sadeh—a man of the field. He likes to hunt and likes the material gluttony in life.

To the Yaakovs, the physical world is a tool, a means to an end. We eat so we can have kavana to learn and energy to do mitzvot. To the Esavs, man’s material pursuits are what life’s all about. It is the end goal.

Hashem’s answer to Rivkah was a dose of reality. The struggle inside her womb was not a dire decree—it was the essence of spiritual existence that would remain so for generations to come.

Today we have a tendency to avoid this dilemma completely. No parents would choose to let their child struggle. We are afraid to let our kids fall lest they fail.

This is not the case everywhere. In Japan, the teacher calls the student who can’t do the math problem to the front of the class. His classmates watch with delight as he struggles on and on to solve the equation. They don’t celebrate the student who can answer correctly on the first try.

Ben Hey Hey, a first-century sage, said, “L’fum tza’ara agra—through pain there will be gain.” We are accustomed to believing that students should always figure it out on the first or second try, but that is just not what happens.

Nowadays, when we don’t know the answer, we can always ask Siri and Alexa. Today, children try out an instrument for a couple of minutes before they quit, often discouraged at the lack of immediate mastery. Have you ever seen the ad for “Learn Hebrew Fluently in Four classes”?

I am part of a generation that didn’t have a battle. We didn’t starve, we weren’t cold and we didn’t have to fight—not for religious freedom, not Jewish education, not for Eretz Yisrael. Almost everything we have in life has been gained without much effort.

The biggest shame in going through life with little struggle is that kids have a natural love of challenge from birth, which we see literally in utero with Yaakov and Esav.

Years before becoming the head of school at Westchester Torah Academy, I taught an eighth grade Gemara class at Ramaz. Pertaining to one of the topics we were learning was a fascinating interpretation by Tosafot, a medieval commentary on the Talmud, that I knew some kids could understand and some wouldn’t. I told them that I was going to teach the commentary once, and if they didn’t understand it the first time, they’d learn it again in the future. I promised it wouldn’t be on the test. Within seconds, all of their books were open to the right page, pens ready to write, eyes focused, and ears eagerly waiting to hear the next word. This information was not going to get them any closer to Harvard, but it was a challenge to them, so they wanted to work at grasping it even more.

Sometimes, people think it will be easy to feel spirituality—that it will require no effort. They think they will walk into shul and automatically connect to God, or walk over to the Kotel and feel the holiness. When this doesn’t immediately happen, they get discouraged.

Spirituality, like Rivkah’s or anyone else’s pregnancy, is not simple. It is turbulent. But we know at the end of a pregnancy, a beautiful baby arrives, b’ezrat Hashem. Similarly, at the end of a spiritual struggle there is also a beautiful reward. The fruit of the struggle is a meaningful relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

At the end of an academic struggle is the blessing of a student who has learned, who made meaning, who feels great and who will actually remember and internalize the information tightly since he had to fight for it.

 

In my years as a teacher and a school head, I have found that the most inspiring students are the ones who have faced struggles and have wrestled their way through. From those struggles comes a deeper and often times transformative relationship with God and Torah.

By Rami Strosberg

 

 Rami Strosberg is the head of school at Westchester Torah Academy.

 

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