Bad eating habits, destructive relationships, poor time management – how do we get into these cycles, and more importantly, how can we get out of them? Idioms like “Fool me once . . . ” and “If at first you don’t succeed . . .” are supposed to spur us into action to break these patterns. However, as much as these theories of progress are meant to teach us to learn from our mistakes, it’s not always that easy.
The Torah is full of examples of the same situation occurring over and over again, and those involved never seem to learn their lesson. Our parshah this week, parshat Toldot, is no exception to this common theme. The text begins with Isaac and Rebecca learning about the birth of their twins, followed later by Esau selling his birthright to Jacob and the sibling issues that follow.
In the middle we learn about what happens to Isaac as he re-inhabits a land where his father had been before. As Isaac is in Gerar, he follows the exact same pattern of his father. In chapter 26 we learn that Isaac lies to Avimelech about his wife being his sister, just as his father had done. Then we learn that his reward is bountiful crops. Finally, we discover that after the Philistines had stopped up all the wells that Abraham had dug, Isaac digs them again. And not only that, but he renames them with the exact same name. Like father, like son, Isaac follows in Abraham’s footsteps, which lead him to the same less-than-favorable results: children who quarrel, land too vast to deal with, upset kings, and the need to dig more wells.
Too often we do what we do simply because the comfort of familiarity outweighs the discomfort of the results. We follow a well-worn path, even if it might mean making the same mistakes that our parents or previous generations made. Perhaps parshat Toldot is here to teach us about the consequences of the paths we walk, but if you’re like me and always appreciate a more concrete plan of action, here are four suggestions for breaking the cycle.
Do something you’ve never done
Even if it’s unrelated to the habit or pattern you’re trying to break, a totally new experience can do wonders. It can distract you, lift your spirits, and possibly even change your outlook. Most importantly, it proves to yourself that you’re capable of change.
Write about it
Compiling your thoughts is a great way to remember positive experiences and reexamine negative ones. Journaling can be very therapeutic, but even if you don’t keep a daily diary, try making an outline or summary of the particular issue you’re facing. It may help you take a step back to look at things more objectively. If it helps, you could even try a symbolic gesture like tearing it up afterward.
Identify your triggers
In this week’s Torah portion, we notice a familiar pattern, but we don’t really get into what may have caused the pattern in the first place. Figuring out what triggers your behavior might be the most powerful weapon you have in fighting that behavior. Does stress lead to poor food choices? Does a fear of failure subconsciously cause procrastination? Work on the catalyst first, and the issue might just take care of itself.
Tell a friend
You’re not alone, and the sooner you realize that, the better. Whether you attend a group therapy session or simply talk through your troubles with someone you trust, a sympathetic ear is a game changer.
There is inherent hope in a negative pattern. Why? Because to recognize a pattern means you acknowledge its existence and thus stand a chance of addressing it. Take that chance.