Character Over Experience – Parshat Toldot 5783

As the oldest grandchild on one side of my family and the second oldest on the other, there’s a bit of legacy weight I feel I carry. On one side, my sister and I are the last of that lineage, the last to carry that name. On the other, none of us carry that name as our own, but it holds a strong connection to the family business and history. In either case, I strongly feel a certain responsibility. Eldest children tend to bare the burden of past generations to carry their legacy into the future. Perhaps this is because they’ve lived (slightly) longer, and therefore have more experience. 

What we often don’t discuss, however, is exactly what should live on. When there’s a family business or a significant piece of real estate involved, it’s easy to identify a tangible transfer from one generation to the next. But what happens when the thing you’re supposed to pass down isn’t quite that concrete? In the Torah this week, we learn that the job of carrying on tradition doesn’t always fall to the person you’d expect.

This week we have a Torah portion that is fully focused on generations moving forward and what we inherit. 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.

Toldot means “the generations,” and as this name suggests, the focus isn’t merely on the current generation, but on future generations to come and who will lead them. Rebekah, a mother of twins, knows her sons more intimately than anyone. She knows which one is a leader and which one is a hunter, which one can follow directions and which is a free spirit. But knowing these truths in her heart doesn’t make transferring the legacy of the previous generation any easier.

In the end, the text seems to hint that God also guides her not to the son who is “older and wiser,” but to the one who is “more apt” to lead a nation. In this moment that breaks the norms we’ve come to know, the Torah suggests that in some cases character might be more important than experience.

Inherited Problems – Parshat Toldot 5782

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.

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

 

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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

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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.