Toldot: Generation to generation

Toldot: Generation to generation

Rabbi-in-residence, Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School, Oakland, 

As the parent of an eighth grader, I am currently in the throes of the high school search process, replete with open houses and application essays. Our son will graduate from a Jewish day school this year, and we are committed to continuing his education at one of the wonderful Jewish high schools in the area. It’s a drop overwhelming, but I am certain we will find a great fit in one of the excellent options–a school with strong academics and robust student life, and that represents our family values.

Naturally, we all want to pass on to our children the values we hold dear. The Torah itself admonishes, “v’shinantam levanecha — teach these words to your children,” and we take pride in seeing the next generation embrace what we inculcate. At the same time, parents and teachers alike must recognize the difference between education and indoctrination; we must leave room for our children and students to form their own identities.

The theme of passing values from one generation to the next is appropriately present in this week’s parsha, Toldot (literally “generations”). The portion begins, “These are the generations of Yitzchak, son of Avraham; Avraham fathered Yitzchak.” The phrasing is awkward — why does the verse note that “Avraham fathered Yitzchak” if it already told us Yitzchak was his son? Various commentators offer interpretations for this redundancy.

Based on a Talmudic midrash, Rashi explains there were skeptics who questioned whether Avraham was indeed the father; they claimed Sarah had become pregnant by Avimelech when she was taken to the harem of that Philistine king. Therefore, Hashem made Yitzchak’s features look just like Avraham’s to disprove the claim. This is the meaning of the double emphasis in the text—Avraham was Yitzchak’s father, and everyone could see the evidence in their identical features.

In “Covenant and Conversation,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks extends this theme by pointing out an additional superfluous phrase: “Avraham was old, very advanced in years…” Why does the verse add “advanced in years” if it already said he was old? The Talmud in Sanhedrin suggests that people had not grown old physically until that point, but because he looked just like Yitzchak, Avraham prayed for an elderly appearance so people could tell them apart.

What do these midrashim teach us?

Their similar features may have disproven the skeptics, but unfortunately created a different problem—loss of individual identity. Indeed, this is borne out in the text, where the events of Yitzchak’s life bear a remarkable resemblance to Avraham’s. Like his father, Yitzchak is forced to travel to the land of the Philistines, where he encounters Avimelech just as Avraham had; and, like Avraham, Yitzchak pretends his wife is his sister under similar circumstances. Additionally, Yitzchak argues with the Philistines over access to water, as Avraham had years earlier; in each case they make a pact at Beer Sheva. It is almost as if Yitzchak merely mimics his father’s actions with no personal agency or identity.

With this in mind, the Talmudic story from Sanhedrin declares that children are meant to be individuals, not carbon copies. Ultimately Avraham required the features of old age to differentiate between parent and child, and thus illustrate that each is unique.

Commenting on the first children in the Bible, Rabbi Harold Kushner has pointed out that in English we say we “have” children, but of course we do not own them. Eve, the first person to ever have children, didn’t understand this. She named her son Kayin, saying, “kaniti ish et Elokim — I have acquired a person with the God’s help.” In the end, though, Kayin becomes a wanderer, far from the parent who thought her son was her possession. We must not make the mistake of seeing children merely as extensions of ourselves.

I am reminded of yet another textual redundancy, this time from the Siddur. In the Amidah, we recite, “Elokeynu v’Elokey avotainu — Our God and God of our ancestors.” Doesn’t one phrase include the other? Perhaps the repetitive wording represents two types of observance. Some observe Jewish practice because it was handed down by their parents (“God of our ancestors”) while others embrace Judaism through their own reasoning (“our God”). When children engage in a journey of their own—one that culminates in the embrace of Torah on their own and not just because an adult said so — it is all the more powerful.

After the incident with Avimelech, Hashem blesses Yitzchak. It is a personal blessing, without reference to his father’s covenant, and with it comes a sense of individuality. On his own accord, Yitzchak re-digs wells from his father’s generation, which had been blocked up by the Philistines. According to Haketav Veha-Kabbalah, this is metaphoric—the Philistines had tried to block the dissemination of Avraham’s message about God and righteousness. Now, when Yitzchak is no longer inextricably linked to his father, he takes the poignant action of continuing in his parents’ ways by unstopping the “wellsprings” of their teaching.

As my eighth grader prepares to take the next steps on his Jewish journey, I will try my best to step back and take pride as he charts his own Jewish journey, not merely as a carbon copy of his parents, but as a unique individual. Now if we can only get through the applications.

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