What Doesn’t Kill You – Parshat Toldot 5778

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“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?”

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

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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.

I Sound Like My Mother – Parshat Toldot 5776

Like My Mother

“Apparently I’m becoming my mother.”  I said these words out loud a few weeks ago.  The more I get into this mom thing, the more I hear myself echoing the words – and taking the actions – of my parents.  From giving Shiri baths with colored water, to the silly songs we sing in the morning and while getting ready for bedtime, it’s like my childhood all over again.

However, this goes beyond just parenting; the journey I’m taking in life so clearly imitates theirs as well.  Every day I struggle with the work/home life balance that my parents worked so hard to find.  Though it’s years away, we’re already starting to weigh the pros and cons of a day school education versus public school, and we’ve started saving for Shiri’s college education. Even Sunday picnic dinners are becoming a tradition in my house again.  It seems the older I get, the more like my parents I become.  Of course this feeling is common – it comes from the fact that we have a shared story, a shared legacy.  This is the script by which I’ve learned how to live life.  

In a certain sense, the Torah has contributed to this script as well.  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, and this section of the narrative comes to an end.  

But before all of the infighting begins, we are shown Isaac’s narrative.  He is described as “son of Abraham,” and chapter 26 tells us he relives many of the events of his father’s life.  Like Abraham, Isaac travels south in a time of famine and tries passing off his wife Rebekah as his sister out of concern for their safety.  Isaac follows his father’s journey to the point that he is re-digging wells that his father had dug and calls them by the same name.  

The story of Isaac, reliving and rediscovering the path of his parent, is similar to so many of our stories.  As we mature, we not only find ourselves resembling our parents in appearance, but often in temperament too.  The text of parshat Toldot, the text of the story of generations, is the understanding of our history, including who we are, where we are, and how we got to be here.  

We read this week’s Torah portion with the knowledge that while it might be disconcerting or downright scary to wake up one day and realize that you’ve turned into your parent, the qualities you choose to emulate are still within your control.  The example that has been set for us cannot be changed, but how we live our lives and raise our children is part of a path forged by our own footsteps in the world.

First is the Worst, Second is the Best – Parshat Toldot 5773

We spend a great deal of time defining ourselves based on our preferences.  I can’t count the number of times a student has asked me my favorite color, my favorite song, my favorite food.  By the way: purple, REM’s “Losing My Religion,” and anything my Uncle Larry, a chef makes. We use it as a tool to get to know one another, it helps inform our birthday gift shopping, and when I have you over for Shabbos dinner, I know not to put almonds in the green beans.  But having a favorite often means choosing one thing over another, closing our minds to another possibility. 
Our parshah this week, Parshat Toldot, tells the story of favoritism.  We start with the birth of Isaac and Rebekah’s twins, Esau and Jacob.  Immediately we are cued in to their physical traits and the way their parents view them.  In utero, Rebekah feels the children fighting, so much so that she wonders why she’s bringing them into the world in the first place.  When they’re born, we learn that Esau arrives first, red and hairy.  Then Jacob comes out holding onto Esau’s heel, but no other physical description is given, leaving us to speculate that Jacob has a favorable appearance. 
And as quickly as we learn of their birth, we learn which parent favors which child.  The text teaches that Esau was a skilled hunter, an outdoorsman, while Jacob was mild-mannered and preferred to be in the camp.  Isaac favored Esau because he hunted and brought home game; Rebekah favored Jacob, although no reason is given for her preference.  Each parent had their “favorite” child, but they seemed to overlook the bigger picture. 
Yes, Esau was a hunter and brought home the meat, but without Jacob’s ability to prepare and cook the stew, the meat would be useless.  Similarly, Jacob could have been Wolfgang Puck, but without Esau’s contributions there wouldn’t be much substance to his creations.  This favoritism left the brothers’ relationship inherently flawed and volatile. 
The most famous part of this saga is the “selling of the birthright” from Esau to Jacob.  When the time comes for the birthright to be given, Jacob (with the help of his mother) enters into his father’s presence dressed as Esau to receive the blessing.  This begs the question:  Doesn’t Isaac know that this isn’t his favorite son, Esau?  Shouldn’t Isaac be able to tell the difference between their voices, their look, their presence? 
We find the answer in the text itself.  As Isaac prepares to give the blessing, we are told that his “eyes were dim.”  Perhaps this means that he physically could not see, or perhaps it reveals to us that Isaac allowed himself only to see the physical body of Esau but knew that it was Jacob who came for the blessing.  Midrash commentary suggests that Isaac so favored Esau that he was blinded to Esau’s negative characteristics.  His “favoritism” from the outset cut off any possibility of him finding another path.  
Isaac asks the son “Who are you my son?”  Maybe it’s this moment, at the end of Isaac’s life, when he realizes his misgivings in choosing a favorite.  He’s asking Jacob:  Who are you?  What sort of person are you?  Are you a kind person?  Isaac brings Jacob close in a moment of fatherly love not expressed before in our narrative.  He has a tender moment and bestows a blessing for a great future upon Jacob.
Parshat Toldot sheds light on the consequences of favoritism.  Isaac is so blinded by his preference that he doesn’t take the time to get to know his other son.  So often we bend towards our preferences and shut ourselves off from an opportunity to learn from another source.  Toldot is the Hebrew word for offspring, and in our texts it’s used to denote a connection from the past to the present and into the future.  In the Torah we see Isaac learn from his mistake as he blesses “the other son.”  We learn that while our favorite color might be purple, pink has merit too, and while we might prefer dogs to cats, it’s the greater love of animals that matters.  Parshat Toldot cries out to us to revisit our world, to see each person as an equal.  When the story is told about ourselves – when we read “And these are the offspring of me,” will the story be one of favoritism and regret or full of life and discovery?
THIS TOO IS TORAH: There are few instances in life when we really feel what it would be like to be someone else, like Jacob does when Isaac blesses him. Have you ever read a letter that was intended for someone else? Or spent time looking through someone’s old photos or videos? We often talk about seeing things through someone else’s eyes or walking a mile in someone’s shoes. What kind of perspective does that bring?