Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Where's Isaac's List? Understanding Toldot - delivered Friday evening 11/29/2019 (Shabbat Toldot)

Parashat Toldot.
 וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֥ת יִצְחָ֖ק בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֑ם
“These are the descendants of Isaac, son of Abraham” our portion opens, but where are the descendants? Seriously. Where are they? The very next phrase is: “Isaac was born to Abraham,” which despite the Rabbinic idea that nothing in Torah is redundant is particularly redundant as Isaac was just identified as Abraham’s son. The text immediately proceeds to “When Isaac was 40 years old he married Rebecca,” and continues to focus on Rebecca and her pregnancy. So again, where are Isaac’s descendants?
Arguably after such a statement, “Eileh toldot Yitzchak - These are the descendants of Isaac son of Abraham,” we should expect a genealogical list of those who descend from Isaac especially as we have that elsewhere. Just moments before, literally at the end of the previous chapter of Torah, we have one for his brother, Ishmael. That paragraph opens similarly, “Eilet toldot Ishamael son of Abraham,” but it continues with the expected genealogical list.

These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibdam, Mishsma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. These are the sons Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by atheir encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes. This is the length of the life Ishmael, on hundred thirty-seven years; he breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people. (Genesis 24:13-17)

Where’s Isaac’s list? Especially in Torah a book whose primary purpose is to tell the story of the Israelite people, Isaac’s line not Ishmael’s.
One possibility is that through the process of textual editing, Isaac’s short genealogical list simply got cut out. Or, and in my opinion a far more satisfying explanation is that this word “Toldot,” that we translate as “descendants,” had a more nuanced meaning in its ancient rendering, and one that is actually suggested by the use of this phrase “Eileh tolodot” in the creation story.

Genesis chapter 2:4-5 reads:
אֵ֣לֶּה תֽוֹלְד֧וֹת הַשָּׁמַ֛יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ בְּהִבָּֽרְאָ֑ם ...
These are the “toldot” of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that Adonai God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up - for Adonai God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was was no one to till the ground.

While literally the word Toldot translates to “generations” or “descendants,” here we can see that understanding Toldot as “story” makes far more sense. This is the story of heaven and earth in their creation.
Eileh toldot Yitzchak ben Avraham, This is the story of Isaac son of Abraham. Translating Toldot here as “story” highlights that Isaac is more than a powerless placeholder in the chain of tradition. His story is important regardless of his progeny. He is the central character.
Isaac’s role in history easily gets overlooked. His voice is silenced in Torah. Even in the episode of the Akeidah, when his father is taking him up to Mount Moriah ostensibly to be sacrificed, Isaac is remarkably quiet. We are left to imagine what he is thinking. Even Rabbinic Midrash – the commentary that gives us stories such as Abraham smashing his father’s idols, or the one that imagines Jacob pushing against his mother’s womb whenever she passed a place of study– these post-biblical stories elaborate on Isaac’s father and children far more than on Isaac himself.
But, Isaac’s story is vital, not only to his immediate family, but to the line of the Israelite nation. Isaac is the patriarch who rebuilds and preserves, re-digging his father’s wells that had been filled by the Phillistines, and renaming them with the very names his father used. This effort is one of the most important insights we have into Isaac’s character. He isn’t an outspoken innovator, for sure, but he is a consolidator who ensures the continuity of legacy. He is the quiet but resilient link between Abraham, the first Jew and Jacob, the future namesake of the Israelite nation.
Isaac is so often painted as a weak unsuspecting victim. Not only in the Akeidah, but later in this week’s portion, too, when it appears that his sons (with Rebecca’s help) trick him out of his blessing for the first born. Perhaps, Isaac isn’t so unsuspecting. An insightful midrash, asks us to imagine Isaac as knowing exactly who his sons are by their choice of words during that famous incident of trickery. He doesn’t need to see or feel them. He knows his children. It doesn’t feel like Jacob, but ha-kol kol Ya’akov (Gen. 27:22). That voice? It’s the voice of Jacob. He recognizes him not only by his vocal timbre but also by his immediate reference to God.
Why, then, doesn’t he speak up and put a stop to the game?
Perhaps because Isaac understands his own story way more than we generally give him credit for. He understands that his role is that of preserving this covenant laid out by God, a God he knows Jacob recognizes and Esau ignores. Isn’t it better for Isaac to let Esau believe he was tricked out of blessing than for him to know it was never intended for him in the first place? That he wasn’t God’s chosen one? A difficult question for any parent to answer. What would any of us have done in that situation?
Eileh toldot Yitzchak. This is Isaac’s story; and, it’s one of strength. One that should inspire us to look past the surface, past immediate assumptions, as we work to consider and honor everyone’s story and their role in our ongoing history.