Fat Tuesday: Family History

3 generations of women sitting in line on a subway

Photo by Don Fontijn on Unsplash

“Toldot” means “generations”, and recounts the people (Abraham, Issac, Rebecca, Esau, Jacob, etc) and events (trouble conceiving, difficult pregnancies, family members with drastically differing worldviews) that act, in a way, as a backdrop for much of the experiences of the Jewish people throughout history. Like the old story-jokes that go “that’s good… NO, that’s bad!” as it’s repeating punchline, often in the Torah narrative something that seems good at the time turns out to be a bad choice in the long run, and vice versa. Often, its context that makes all the difference.

I was thinking about how our family dynamics and past choices form a backdrop for the challenges we face later in life.

  • My Dad always struggled with weight (that’s bad)
  • no, that’s good because I take after my Mom, and had a really fast metabolism (that’s good!)
  • No that’s bad because I never learned proper eating habits as a kid (that’s bad)
  • No that’s good, because…

You see how it goes. But there are other variables. Did we watch another family member struggle with their weight, with making healthy food choices, with self-image? Maybe that motivated us not to make the same choices. Or maybe it gave us a fatalistic sense that it was unavoidable. Did we have to deal with a sibling who was a total health nut, and so we purposely made mediocre choices because we couldn’t stand to be like them? Or did we absorb their techniques and ideas, even as we made fun of them for being such a fanatic?

But a lesson I think we can glean from the portion this week is that nature and nurture is only half the story. Regardless of the body type we were born with, and the habits we internalized as we grew, choice is still (and always) ours.

If we find ourselves caught in an unhealthy cycle (what my computer geek friends and I like to call an “anti-pattern”) we always have the ability to break that loop.

In the end, Toldot tells the story of anti-patterns and how we can deal with them. Faced with the wrong (in her opinion) son getting the familial blessing, Rebecca takes matters into her own hands so that Jacob can receive it instead. Faced with a possibly murderous brother, Jacob sets off for Haran.

All of these choices, of course, have consequences of their own – sometimes entire cascades of subsequent events and causalities. And some of these choices are truly difficult.

But the sense you get as you read the Torah narrative is that each choice is desperately important, essential, and necessary. We who are on a journey to get our eating, our health, and yes our weight under control face those choices in every moment. Some decisions we make are less than perfect. Others downright wrong. But the critical piece is use the consequences to inform our actions, so that we are constantly improving.

Or, to quote one of the greatest sages of our time:

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.
– Professor Albus Dumbledore