It’s been a while since I’ve written a truly random, stream of consciousness style musing. I’m not sure that even I can follow my train of thought, but, nevertheless, whatever tracks I’ve jumped, I wound up at some station somewhere. Enjoy. – AAD
There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This
Eight years ago, I wrote of Rivkah’s (Rebecca’s) lament as twins struggled in her womb:
"Im kein, lama zo anokhi" – (Gen. 25:22)
Literally "if thus, why this I?" It gets poetic reshaping in translation. The JPS editors say "If this is so, why do I exist?" Fox gives it a slight alteration – "If this be so, why do I exist?" The NRSV committee settled on "If it is to be this way, why do I live?"
She goes to seek an answer from G"d, who gives her the cryptic response:
"two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger." (25:23)
I guess this answer satisfied Rivkah. For more thoughts on this situation in context, read my 5761 musing "Is This All There Is?
Today, I want to take the liberty of struggling with Rivkah’s words out of context, or, more properly, in a more personal context. Personal for me, perhaps, but just as personal for any of us. Have not each of us experienced a time when we asked "Im kein, lama zo anokhi" ? (If not, I’m sure you will.)
Life has twists and turns. Life has good moments and bad moments. Like the dance hall girls in "Sweet Charity" we can find ourselves dreaming that "there’s gotta be something better than this," whatever "this" is.
There is plenty of wisdom on both sides of this dilemma. Platitudes abound. On the negative side we’ve got the ever popular "life sucks and then you die" or that one about the sandwich made of poop. Brth, death, taxes. On the positive side we have platitudes like "Into every life a little rain must fall" or "things always look darkest before the dawn." Or more annoying ones like "behind every cloud there’s a silver lining" or "when G"d closes a door G"d opens a window." Then there are other "sides" like the "personal responsibility/effort side" as demonstrated by Tom Lehrer’s "Life is like a sewer-what you get out of it depends on what you put into it."
There is the well-worn story of the rabbi who teaches a family to be content with what they have by having them invite all their animals into the house to live with them. There’s the whole Joseph saga with it’s tireless "good ends can come from bad beginnings" theme.
None of these answers alone is the answer. If we’re all always just trying to be happy with what we’ve got, is that necessarily a good thing? Continual contentment might not be the blessing it appears to be. You might really be getting screwed over. Someone might really have it in for you. Your skin color, your religion, your funny laugh, your tick-whatever-someone out there could find a reason to dislike you and make your life miserable. Just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t following you. Or, your life just might really suck! (Or it really might not be anywhere as bad as you think it is. Or you might really be paranoid. Or this bad moment in your life will lead to something better.)
Cynics on every side are ready with retorts. A little wry irony to combat the Polly-Anna platitudes. A Tinkerball to confront the doubters. A great turn-around success story, or a great rags-to-riches (or riches-to-rags) story. I myself have spoken about people living in abject poverty who are happier than most of us. Yet is that really the case?
There’s nothing like a little reality to take the wind out of the sails of any platitude-positive or negative. And that, my friends, is the point. We can’t rely on platitudes to get us through life. We do have to take the bad with the good and the good with the bad-but we don’t always have to be happy about it. Kvetching is permitted. Not to excess, of course, which, for Jews, can be difficult. But everyone needs to complain once in a while. If we shush them with platitudes, we negate their pain or discomfort – and it is not up to us to judge another’s pain. We all need to learn to take each others’ kvetches at face value.
Forgive the use of a platitude here, but it seems to fit: "feelings are just that-feelings."
OK, so we have permission to kvetch. But what has all this to do with what Rivkah said? What Rivkah asks may be in response to what she is experiencing. Nevertheless, her words are general enough that anyone could use them in almost any difficult situation.
Here’s the point of my little diatribe. Rivkah didn’t really need a response. Perhaps that’s why she was silent in the face of G"d’s answer. She just needed the cartharsis of asking this universal question.
Our world is full of fixers. (G"d, perhaps is/was one of them.) We rush to respond to complaints and try and fix them. I’ll bet that a good percentage of the time we don’t even really know what the underlying problem is. We’re never going to find out if we respond to each and every kvetch assuming we know what’s wrong and how to fix it. We also won’t find out if all we ever answer with is platitudes.
Did G"d telling Rivkah what G"d told her really make her life any better?
So what’s the answer? Listening. Just listen. Let people kvetch every now and then. (Agreed that, if they are a perpetual kvetcher, that’s a problem.) Don’t try to make them feel better. Don’t commiserate with them. Don’t try and fix them.
That’s one of the nice things about G"d, at least in these times. Either G"d isn’t responding, or G"d is responding in ways that aren’t apparent to us. Yes, there’s that third alternative – that there is no G"d to respond. Well, you know what? You don’t even have to believe, if that’s what works for you. Still, you gotta admit it’s nice to have someone to kvetch to who won’t respond. Sometimes, just the kvetching itself helps. Thanks, G"d, for not responding to my every kvetch. Maybe You finally learned from your response to Rivkah that sometimes no response is the best response.
Hey-here’s an odd twist of thought – the ultimate tzimtzum. Admitting a tendency to be to responsive, to being a fixer, and knowing that we human beings grow easily dependent, maybe You willed Yourself out of existence (or at least out of our plane of understanding what existence is) for our own good.
But there’s a fly in my ointment. It would be nice G"d if, every once in a while, You stopped back in for a visit to see how things were going.
What? What’s that? Oh. OK. I hear You-after all that kvetching in Egypt and after we got out of Egypt, You’d had enough, huh? And every time You came back for a visit more kvetching? We wanted a king? Crops were failing? We were being persecuted? Your laws were too hard to keep? Nu, so when will moshiakh come already?
OK, Big Kahuna. What if we promise we won’t kvetch so much? Yes, I know I just wrote that we should permit ourselves to kvetch. If I tell everybody to hold off on the kvetching during Your visit, will You come?
What was that you said, G"d? I couldn’t here You. Was that an "Ov vey" I heard? A sigh? Perhaps a kvetch?
[the earth trembles beneath my feet]
What? What was that? What were You mumbling just now?
And that kol d’mamah dakah–that still, small voice whispers in my ear: "Im kein, lama zo anokhi?"
©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester