Running on Empty – Parshat Toldot 5781

I have the habit of running myself ragged, sometimes beyond my body’s limits, and simply ending up with an empty tank. It’s strange that I never let my car gas tank go below a quarter tank, for fear that I might get stranded somewhere, but that seems to not apply to my own well-being. I have to schedule time into my calendar to refill my soul with a nourishing walk outside, or remind myself to put away my phone for some uninterrupted time with my kids. Shabbat can come in handy for these moments if I’m not working the whole day, but when I get to the empty mark, that’s it for me. I can’t see past my exhaustion and often don’t have the capacity to bring my spirit, comfort, or even presence to our community.

I realize it’s not just me facing this issue. We live in a world that celebrates busyness and pushing ourselves to the limit in terms of scheduling, activities, and commitments. In doing this, we often get to a point of being unable to see past the current moment, and the same happens in our Torah portion this week, Toldot. 

This week, in Parshat Toldot, 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.

Perhaps the most famous part of this Torah portion is the bargaining of Jacob with Esau for the birthright. The narrative tells us that Jacob, the favored child, the one their mother doted on, is cooking a delicious stew. Esau, who is described from birth as wild and clearly not favored by Rebekah, comes back from hunting. Esau is “famished” and accepts the bargain to give away his birthright, his prized position simply to satisfy an immediate need.

Joseph Soloveitchik, a brilliant mind among the 20th century Torah commentators, understands Esau’s hunger not to be solely physical, but rather a spiritual weariness and exhaustion. Perhaps Esau is weary because he doesn’t have faith to give meaning to his life, or perhaps he sees no point in living since death comes for us all, or perhaps he is so over it and exhausted that he can’t see past his own needs to his obligations to his family and community. Whatever combination of reasons, Esau acts out of this confluence of moments for his present need instead of what might have served him better in the future.

Parshat Toldot is a reminder to be aware of our hunger, both physical and spiritual, so that we don’t get to the point of famished. That might mean literally eating little snacks during the day to stay satiated but not stuffed, or metaphorically filling your soul with small breaks each day in nature or with your family. Whatever exhausts us does not have to control us. As long as we have a clear set of both values and boundaries, we’re able to act not from an empty, hollow place, but from a place of loving ourselves enough to know what we need.

A Mother’s Love – Parshat Toldot 5780



The easiest part of parenting is love. The hardest part of parenting is tough love. I’m talking about those moments when I just want to give in to the ridiculous tantrum and relinquish a lollipop or M&M so the screaming will stop. But I know if I do that, I’m just making my life harder in the future, because I’m creating the expectation that bad behavior is rewarded. Or how about the moments when I just want to do something for my children instead of letting them make mistakes and learn from them. Doing the right thing as a parent isn’t always easy, but because I love my children I try to be strong and consistent.

Doing what’s best for someone else doesn’t necessarily mean doing what’s easiest or even what’s kindest in the moment. In the Torah, again and again we see parents making tough choices as they raise their children. Parsaht Toldot, which we read this week, is no exception. The text begins with Isaac and Rebecca learning about the birth of their twins, followed by the incident of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob and the sibling issues that follow. In the middle of the portion, we learn about what happens to Isaac as he re-inhabits a land that his father had been to before. 

At the end of the parshah, after the saga of Jacob stealing his brother’s birthright and tricking his father, the text reads, “Then Isaac sent Jacob off, and he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban the son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau.” If you’ve been following the journey so far, it seems odd that the Torah would reiterate that Rebekah was Jacob’s mother, since at this point we are already very well aware of that. A 17th century Polish commentary called Tzeidah La-Derekh asks this question as well. The response is simple: it’s in her role as a mother that Rebekah sends Jacob away. She’s showing her love to both of her children; she’s sparing Jacob’s life, and she’s saving his brother Esau from becoming a murderer.

Both Jacob and Esau were her children, and while she may have had a deeper connection to Jacob, she still loved and protected Esau. The hardest thing she had to do was send away one child to save his life, and subsequently save the other child.

There are countless choices and decisions we make as parents, and plenty of times we’re left wondering whether or not we’ve made the right choice. The struggle of Rebekah reminds us that our job is to be firm and loving, and to make the tough choices that allow our children the best chance for success in life. 

Where There’s a Will – Parshat Toldot 5779


You know those moments you have when you realize you’re an adult? I had one of those a few years ago when Duncan and I sat in our attorney’s office preparing items like our advanced medical directives, our wishes for our children, and our estate plan. I admit we got a little teary-eyed as we sat there and decided who we’d ask to care for our children if anything should happen. We didn’t get quite as emotional when it came time to decide what to do with our beloved dog Stanley; in fact we laughed a little thinking about how even a dog needs a contingency plan.

We thought about how we might divide up our special pieces of jewelry and made sure that our housing documents were in order. And we had serious discussions with each other about our wishes for end of life. The entire process felt very adult and somewhat terrifying, yet at the same time calming and oddly satisfying. While we can never actually plan for every situation that might arise, I certainly feel like this process gave us peace of mind.

Throughout life we spend a lot of time thinking about “what if” situations, and it’s our forefathers in the Torah who give us the first example of acting and concretizing our plans. 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.

As the drama and chaos occur, we learn about Isaac aging. In chapter 27, verse 2 he says, “I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die. Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt for me some game.” The text continues as Isaac guides his son to create a meal so that ultimately he can do his final fatherly duty: bestow blessing, share inheritance, and say goodbye.

The Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law, uses the words “I am old now” to teach us that those who tend to the dying must ask them whether they have put their affairs in order. Our modern legal body that guides the Conservative movement, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), goes further to remind us that in addition to arranging for our assets to be disbursed, we must also take care to provide medical directives and ethical wills for our families.

Besides the memories of a life well lived and loved, the final gift we have to share with loved ones is the gift of planning. Our Torah this week teaches us that the more guidance we can give our loved ones to care for us and know our own wishes, the less stress and chaos we create. If you haven’t yet created a living trust or will, take the time to offer those close to you this gift – not just the gift of the value of the items you’ll leave behind, but more importantly, the gift of compassionate concern for the people who live on after you.

What Doesn’t Kill You – Parshat Toldot 5778


“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Like a lot of clichés, the literal reading is completely false. Something that almost causes your death doesn’t make you stronger; it makes you weaker, and likely significantly weaker. Instead, it’s the figurative interpretation that is meant to resonate with us. We have the power to take the things that nearly destroy us emotionally and spiritually and use them to our advantage later in life. Living and learning through these types of moments and events is difficult, no question, but the building up of character, will, drive – ultimately that strengthens us.

Believe it or not, this notion didn’t start with the lyrics in Kelly Clarkson’s song “Stronger.” All of the biblical figures who are known to us as the matriarchs and patriarchs have moments when they struggle with God and with the paths their lives take. Adam and Eve had to answer to God after going against their instruction and eating from the tree. Cain had to answer to God after he killed his brother. Abraham was tested by God on multiple occasions. This week we learn Isaac and Rebekah are no different.

This week we read from Parshat Toldot, which literally means “generations.” We read the story of Isaac and Rebekah, their struggle with infertility, and the subsequent birth of their twins. The text continues with the sibling rivalry which began in utero and continues throughout the boys’ lives. Ultimately, Jacob and Esau are no longer able to even live in the same house as the trickery, fighting, and intolerance for one another escalates. Jacob is sent away for his own safety by his mother as this section of the narrative comes to an end.

When Rebekah finds out she is pregnant, she not only feels the typical baby movements most mothers feel, but also endures the fighting her twins appear to be engaging in inside her womb. She asks out of desperation, “If this is so, why do I exist?” And God answers, “Two nations are in your womb, two separate people shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.” This is Rebekah at her most vulnerable, grasping to understand how motherhood could possibly be worth all of the pain and suffering she is enduring. Rather than do something to relieve the suffering, God responds by charging her with the responsibility of nurturing two nations. It was perhaps not the answer she was hoping for in the moment, but certainly one that would have strengthened Rebekah emotionally, if not physically.

It doesn’t feel helpful when you’re in the middle of a crisis and someone attempts a reassuring tone to say, “This will only make you stronger.” We simply can’t see the world through that lens until the trying time has passed. However, the Torah reminds us this week that our job is to learn from our experiences and to be able to transition from the painful “Why me?” to the more purposeful “Now what?”

Stop It: 4 Ways to Break the Pattern – Parshat Toldot 5777


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.