Toldot

A d’var Torah I delivered last year at Congregation Shearith Israel, Atlanta, on the Friday evening of the Sabbath when the portion known as Toldot is read:

Toldot, it seems, is a hard word to translate. Sometimes it’s given as “generations,” but that’s not right; sometimes as “story,” but those who know say it’s more than that. Toldot Yitzkhak means something like “the accomplishments of Isaac.” It’s his resumé. It’s what you need to know about him. But is it really about Isaac?

As I hope you know I am no expert on the Torah, but fortunately I did not have to do this on my own. Rabbi Bernard Berzon, the beloved spiritual leader of my childhood, left a book of sermons, and the one on Toldot has this message: Choose the right grandfather. Each of us has two. Of the twins, Esau chose Bethuel, an ordinary man at best; but Jacob chose Avraham.

I like to think I have chosen the right rabbis. Rabbi [Mel] Sirner suggested that I talk about Rebecca, which was fine with me. She is everywhere in Toldot—from the time she feels the twins contending in her womb—sh’nay goyim—two nations—to the time when she overturns the prescribed succession in the lineage, and to top it off tells Isaac that Jacob must marry one of her own relatives.

Arnold Goodman was my rabbi for many years, and in one of four sermons of his on Toldot that I’ve read, he distinguished between “Isaac love” and “Rebecca love.” We read that “Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for game, but Rebecca loved Jacob.” V’Rivka ohevet et Ya’akov. Isaac loved Esau in return for something. Rebecca just loved Jacob, period. Rabbi Goodman also quoted the poet Goethe: What you have inherited from your ancestors, take hold of it in order to make it your own.

Today I had lunch with Rabbi [Emanuel] Feldman the elder, for four decades the leader of Congregation Beth Jacob, and of course I asked him about Toldot. He agreed with a very secular critic, Harold Bloom, that here as in many places throughout the Tanakh, the pivotal character is a woman. Rebecca makes the choice that determines the future.

I pressed him on the trickery—some might say treachery—which Rebecca perpetrates on the dying Isaac, carried out almost too well by Jacob. I also pressed him on the anguish felt by Esau, and shared by his father, when they realize what has been done to them.

He pointed out that earlier, when Esau trades his birthright for pottage, he barely misses a beat. “He ate, he drank, he got up, he went away.” Vay’khol, vayeysht, vayakam, vayeylakh. That’s it. In this way, the Torah says, he belittled his birthright. By the way, there are proverbs in both Yiddish and Ladino that make reference to Esau in making fun of a stupid businessman.

Rabbi Feldman also said something we all intuit: Isaac is the most passive of all the patriarchs. After the akeda, when he is almost sacrificed, he seems to belong to another world. But Rebecca understands this world and all its flaws. She knows she is breaking the rules. But she knows too that it is Jacob who has chosen Avraham as his grandfather, and that he is the one who will carry the legacy forward into the future.

We hear that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. I think men are from Mars and women are from Earth. On the one hand, Isaac has his head in the clouds, but on the other hand he cares too much about the taste of hunted meat. Rebecca, meanwhile, has her eye and her mind on the heritage of the past and on all the generations to come.