Toldot 2021: The Power of Familial Patterns

Our Torah teaches us that familial patterns of behavior can govern the future of entire peoples, but we also have the power to move beyond them. In this week's Torah portion, we see an Isaac stuck deeply in the patterns of his past - what can we learn from his struggles?

Familial patterns - intergenerational modes of behavior that are transmitted and reestablished both implicitly and explicitly - are some of the most powerful forces in our social lives. Sometimes it’s something simple, like noticing you’re responding to aspects of your home life just like one of your parents did, and sometimes it’s more complex, like recreating entire systems of dynamic dysfunction. In our Torah portion this week, aptly named Toldot, Generations, we are given direct testimony of this being an ancient human issue.

This week’s Torah portion is full of anecdotes outlining the lives of Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Esau. In a way, each story is a refracted version of something that happened previously in the story of Abraham and Sara. We have a couple trying desperately to bear children, then finding that those children they are granted lead only to conflict. We see two brothers, very different in many ways, stuck within a familial system that pits them against each other. But most striking, and really the catalyst for this issue in the portion, are Isaac’s journeys.

The segment of the portion about Isaac’s journeys begins with God speaking to Isaac, and telling him to move to a place unaffected by a famine, as happened to Abraham earlier in the Torah. In God’s speech, Isaac isn’t mentioned as an important piece in this puzzle at all - in fact, he is told by God that his blessings and wealth are purely and only on the merit of his father Abraham, saying “I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven, and assign to your heirs all these lands, so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your heirs—  inasmuch as Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge:”

God’s “blessing” to Isaac may actually be the opposite - a curse, or a challenge. Isaac being told that he is merely a vessel inheriting his father’s legacy, has his own agency entirely undermined, leading to his repeating beat for beat the sojourns of Abraham around the region.

The most glaring retreading is the most troubling one - just as Abraham told the Abimelech and Pharaoh that his wife Sara was his sister, for fear of being killed for her, Isaac tells a local Philistine leader the same, leading to similarly dramatic outcomes. 

As a clear symbol of this retreading of Abraham’s footsteps being a centerpiece to the portion, the Torah says explicitly, “Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them.”

Isaac’s reenactment of his father’s life comes to a head with his sons. Just as Isaac and his brother Ishmael were put at odds due to a birthright, so, too are Jacob and Esau. Isaac’s wife Rebecca seeks to push Jacob to supplant Esau as the inheritor of the father’s legacy, just as Sara did with Isaac and Ishmael. And Jacob, at this point, is also described in ways reminiscent of his father - the text relates both of them as tent-dwellers, and mild mannered. 

On the face of it, this may seem like simple literary features of an ancient text, but I believe our Torah transmits deep wisdom through these narratives. The toxic patterns that emerge in Isaac, as inherited from his family, drive this story forward - they are the nameless, voiceless powers in the background, providing the entire structure of the narrative. Perhaps, based in God’s blessing, or curse, to Isaac, this is Divinely ordained - perhaps the very basis for the launching off of our namesake’s tale of redemption, that is Jacob, required this processing of historical family trauma to occur through reenactment.

The first place we see this matrix begin to crumble is when Jacob’s experience diverges from Isaac’s, as he tricks both his brother and his father into participating in his supplanting of Esau. The first supplanting occurs out of Jacob’s own volition - given the opportunity to take advantage of his brother’s hunger and impulsivity, he leads Esau to hand over his birthright for a bowl of stew. The second is at the behest of his mother Rebekah, who guides him to trick his father. Both require Jacob taking action, even if he was uncomfortable with the action, but both also focus on Jacob’s coveting of Esau’s position. This coveting is where the familial patterns begin spiraling out.

Sara, a few parshiyot ago, says to Abraham, “Cast out that Hagar and your son Ishmael, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” 

We see this same impulse in Jacob’s desire for Esau’s birthright, and Rebekah’s desire to supplant Esau, her less favored child, but from here on out, the matrix of familial repetition shatters. The family is split up due to the fallout of the trickery, and Jacob is sent off to Rebekah’s family, while Esau goes off to Ishmael’s family.

This breaking up of the family, is, too, reminiscent of Ishmael’s earlier banishment in Esau, but Jacob’s being cast off too, unlike Isaac, is a major shift, and the beginning of the breaking of the toxic familial patterns that the family was inhabiting. In the next portion, we watch Jacob process and deal with even further familial dysfunction, and, eventually, begin to overcome it. But that’s next week.

This week’s portion provides all of us a moment for reflection. I know for a fact that I have implanted deep within me certain behaviors and reactions that I soaked up from my parents, some of which are good, some of which do not serve me, and they too probably soaked them up from their parents. What our portion this week tells us is that each of us inhabit precisely the same kind of matrix of familial patterns, and they can be a curse or a blessing. It is up to us to pick out the aspects of these patterns, in a mindful way, which patterns to reiterate and which patterns to abolish. 

Through this, we build our lives in the direction of our hopes and our dreams, not allowing past problems or difficulties to define or break us. Through this, we continue the journey of our ancestors, refining that which we’ve inherited, building upon the foundations laid for us, and leaving behind the things that have only been destructive. May each of us learn from the trials and tribulations of Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau, no longer reflexively re-embodying the mistakes of those who came before us, but learning to grow and change, allowing the highest versions of ourselves to speak anew.