I try not to blame my parents for all my problems, but there are some that are totally their fault. Of course I’m talking about the problems that aren’t in their control either, the ones that are determined by genetics. It would be easy to blame them for all my neuroses and other issues too, but the truth is there’s a lot more nature involved than we like to assume. The place where they can’t escape blame (and neither can I for my kids) is my genetic makeup. I am prone to diabetes (I have a family history of it). I also inherited a history of heart disease, OCD, and stomach issues. I’m not trying to overshare personal health history in public; there are just certain things that each of us is genetically predisposed to have, and these are mine. Why couldn’t I have inherited a beach house instead?
And yet, I wouldn’t trade my family for the world. I inherited this (health issues and all) because of the lineage I come from, and that history and those people are incredibly special to me. They’ve always had my back, they hold me and support me through it all, and thanks to modern medicine, I know what’s coming so I can protect myself and work through it before it is an issue.
This week we have a Torah portion that is fully focused on what we are born with and how generations move forward. This week we read Parshat Toldot, in which Isaac and Rebekah become parents. The pregnancy is not easy, and the twins are anything but calm. Jacob and Esau are very different, and each is feisty in his own way. Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for lentil stew, and Jacob tricks his father into getting the blessing his brother deserves. Esau finds out, and his outrage over the incident causes Jacob to flee for his life. The portion ends with Esau growing up and rebelling against the family in his choice of life partner.
In the moment Isaac and Rebekah know they’re going to be parents, Rebekah questions it all. She says as the next generation is fighting, forcefully, in her womb “If this is so, why do I exist?” Obviously she was uncomfortable. Obviously she didn’t feel like it was worth it to continue growing these humans if they were just going to cause problems. As we know, she did grow them, and they did cause problems.
Jacob and Esau had no conscious thought about fighting in the womb. They were born with the tendency to go against each other, fighting for attention. But that doesn’t mean Rebekah should have simply given up. Plenty of moments in life feel like an uphill battle. Try as I might to outsmart all the autoimmune diseases in my family, the likelihood I’ll have one is pretty high. That doesn’t give me an excuse to give up. At the same time, I recognize the place of privilege I come from to keep pushing forward, even when some struggles seem futile.
Even Rebekah, who is pregnant with the children promised by God, questions it. Why? To show us that it’s ok to be scared. What Parshat Toldot teaches us is to remember that our lives are not determined by what happens to us or what we’re born with, but by how we adapt and learn and use what we’ve been given.