During my first summer at Camp Ramah it became necessary to dismiss a camper. We sat on my porch together, and he started to shake and cry after I broke the news to him. He buried his face in his hands.
“I want to die. I want to die. I might as well just slit my wrists,” he cried. “Please don’t. Please!”
He went on to explain: “If I get kicked out of camp, my high school will find out. If they find out, I’ll get kicked out of high school. And if I get kicked out of high school, I won’t get into college. And if I don’t get into college, I won’t get a good job. And if I don’t get a good job, I might as well just die. I want to die.”
“It doesn’t have to be like that,” I told him. “Your life can turn out another way. It’s OK. Things can be different.”
Thankfully, he would be fine. But in that moment, I saw how dangerously narrow definitions of “success” can be in our society and how helping another to see life differently can literally save a life.
In the beginning of this week’s parasha, Rebecca is barren, and Isaac prays on her behalf. God listens to Isaac’s prayer, and Rebecca conceives.
Then we learn: “The two children struggled within her and she said, ‘If so, why me?’ and she went to inquire of Adonai” (Genesis 25:22).
Many commentators struggle to understand what Rebecca means: im keyn lamah zeh anochi (literally, “if so, why this me?”). Rashi says Rebecca despairs of having become pregnant: “If the pain of pregnancy is so great, why did I pray for and aspire to pregnancy?” Ibn Ezra thinks Rebecca feels exceptional in her suffering: “Rebecca asked other women if they experienced such pains and they said, ‘no,’ so Rebecca asked, ‘Why am I beset with such an unusual pregnancy?’”
Seforno thinks Rebecca fears for her own life and lashes out at those who love her: “Since [the twins] are struggling and there is the possibility that one will die, I will be in danger at the time of birth, as often happens when a dead infant is delivered. ‘Why this me?’ means ‘Why did my family so desire that the children of Isaac be born through me, as it is written, “Be thou the mother of thousands and tens of thousands” [Genesis 24:60] and why did my husband pray that I bear his children?’”
Each of these readings is plausible. But another commentary haunts me. Nachmanides says that “lamah zeh anochi” means, “Why am I in the world? Would that I did not exist, oh, that I should die or never have come into existence.” Rebecca wishes she had never been; she cries out to die. What brings Rebecca to the point of despair?
Malbim says Rebecca thought the struggle she felt within her was on account of her, meaning that even though God had intervened to help Rebecca — who was barren — to become pregnant, she nevertheless thought her womb lacked the capacity to carry a child.
He writes, “Miraculous intervention is capable of influencing and redesigning the body in a way that will not be contrary to nature, but only provided there is something initially there to work with. The barren woman who is helped to give birth will have her body made suitable for bearing [like] the parched tree will be watered and transformed into a fresh and moist tree, capable of bearing fruit. However, if the receptacle for containing the infant is completely missing, then a totally new creation is required.”
Rebecca, therefore, thought there was no remedy for her, as the verse states, “If so, why am I?” meaning, “Why am I in the world?”
According to Malbim, Rebecca cries out to end her life because she believes herself physically incapable of bearing children and she cannot understand her life’s purpose, she cannot understand why she is in the world.
Despair happens when we only see one way our lives can turn out, and that way seems closed to us.
Rebecca wants to give up on life because her body cannot bear children. A camper says he wants to die because he fears he won’t get a good job many years from now.
What kind of Jewish world are we creating for ourselves and our children? One in which there is only one way to succeed in life? Or one in which we can see many holy paths to walk with God?
A long time ago, Rebecca cried out, “Why this me?” and because she was able to step back from that moment of despair and find a new answer to that question, we are here. How we answer these questions is not academic — sometimes it is a matter of life and death.
Rabbi Daniel Greyber is executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Zimmer Conference Center at American Jewish University (ramah.org).