Part of a yearlong series on resilience in Jewish spiritual life.
Today's shrill era in which some vocally try to silence others isn't new. The only difference is that more of us – at long last – are calling it what it is.
It takes resilience to "persist" against the constant drumbeat of silencing and gaslighting, and more resilience to "persist" in calling these behaviors what they are. For some, this struggle can feel exhausting. For others, truth-telling resistance feels empowering and success fuels a virtuous cycle. "Nevertheless she persisted" has become a public campaign to mock the misogyny of silencing.
We've come a long way (though not far enough) since ancient days, when (according to a history probably recorded by men for men) a woman's role was to bear children and tend home and hearth. Biblical women identified with this role: subjectively, some felt that they were their role.
So in this week's Torah portion (Toldot), when long-barren Rebecca finally conceived, carried twins and experienced a tough pregnancy, she so identified with this role that she famously asked, "Why am I this? ... and she went to inquire of God" (Genesis 25:22). Rebecca might have asked, "Why is this happening to me," but instead her question conflated role and identity.
Can't we moderns identify? How often do we imagine that we are our careers, family roles, abilities, disabilities, resumes or bank accounts? Granted, pregnancy is unique in putting one's being in full service of growing another (and how could I, as a cis-gendered male, ever understand it intuitively?). That said, Rebecca's experience also holds up a metaphorical mirror for every time we fall into the rut of believing that we are any one experience or role, however important.
What made Rebecca different, spiritually speaking, was that she dared to say it aloud. She was the first in Torah to ask God a "why" question and then summon the chutzpah to seek an answer. In an era so dominated by men, it's meaningful that Torah accords this special first to a woman. It's doubly meaningful that Rebecca would ask this particular "why" question, as if to challenge this conflation. And it's triply meaningful that God – the Ultimate representation of Power – responded by answering Rebecca directly.
Rebecca stood up and wouldn't let her supposedly inferior social position limit or silence her. And her resilience paid off: Rebecca got an answer. Today, everyone who asks "why" does so in Rebecca's spiritual legacy. Everyone who stands up against silencing and role conflation, and who speaks up and out to Power, does so in Rebecca's spiritual legacy.
"Nevertheless she persisted." Resilience pays off. Just ask Rebecca.
– Rabbi David Evan Markus