Toldot 5756 -- Jonathan Serebrin's Bar Mitzvah
Celebrating a bar-mitzvah is, definitely, a Jewish thing, dont you agree, Jonathan? For the last number of weeks we have been reading in the Torah the story of our patriarch, Abraham. We revere Abraham not because he was perfect, but because he was our father. Not just Abraham, but also Isaac and Jacob are not portrayed by the Torah as men without flaws, or saints who could do no wrong. They show traits that we recognize as weakness -- in ourselves as well as in them. What sets them apart, and what we try to learn to emulate, is the courage of their convictions which is evident in moments of luminous insight and supreme self-denial. One such moment was the Akeda Isaacs binding on the altar on Mount Moriah. But such moments also take their toll. Isaac never seems to have recovered from his binding at the hands of his father. Abraham may have passed the divine test at Moriah, but Isaacs religious growth was permanently stunted. Later, in Genesis 31:42, we are told that the name by which God was known to Isaac is Pakhad Yitzkhak "the Fear of Isaac," a name of God not found anywhere else in the Torah. Does the nomenclature suggest that Isaac knew God only as a scary and demanding presence, a source of dread, as God surely must have appeared to him at Moriah?
What we do know from this weeks parasha is that "Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game, while Rebekah favored Jacob." [Gen. 25:28] It is the more virile, robust, and adventurous of his two sons that Isaac showers with attention. Unlike Rebekah, he is oblivious to the divine wish that the religious legacy of Abraham pass through the line of Jacob. True to his name, Yitzhak, whose name means "he shall laugh,"wanted to enjoy life. Actually, the real hero of this part of the ancestral saga is Rebekah, who displays an unfailing religious sensibility throughout. The fact that she accepted the invitation to marry Isaac from a total stranger proves her awareness of Gods hand in the remarkable events of her life right from the start of her time on the stage of history. In the midst of a difficult and painful pregnancy, with twins in her womb, she turns to inquire of God herself, without benefit of any intermediary [Gen. 25:22]. Rebekah rises to protect Jacob and her husbands heritage -- because she alone senses that religious leadership in the family ought not to be the exclusive prerogative of the first-born son. Her advocacy marks a brave first step toward opening the ranks of religious leadership to all who are religiously qualified. So, today it is you who is leading the congregation, accepting your part in this saga of the seed of Abraham, and, to be sure, of Sarah, in the tragic fate of Isaac, and the just cause of Rebekahs choice. May you continue to live up to our expectations, and may we always rejoice in your happy occasions.
Legend has it that mankind was "happy go lucky" until people made up their mind to go ahead and get married. Don't get me wrong, I accept my fate and agree with God, when he said that "it is not good for man to live alone," and I bless Him for giving me my dear wife as a help mate, Leah -- but don't you think that sometimes "family" gets to be a burden rather than a joy?
A case in point is our father Yitzkhak, and the reading of the Torah this Shabbat illustrates it quite well. Listen to the opening words of our portion:
"These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham's son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, "If it is to be this way, why do I live?" So she went to inquire of the Lord . And the Lord said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger." [Gen 25:19-24]
What is wrong with this text? Did you notice? "The generations of Isaac," the text says -- which is another way of saying the history of Isaac. Yet this story begins with Abraham was the father of Isaac, and continues after one verse to bring in Rebecca, and her struggle to give birth to twins. I don't know if you are aware of it -- but it is no small task raising twins. It is not the same as raising two children who are a year apart. It is a unique and difficult experience. In many communities, nowadays, there are support groups for parents of twins. They need it, I know!
As difficult as it is to be the parent of twins, and as difficult as it is to have gifted and successful children -- and as rough as it is to be the child of a great and famous parent -- the worst is to be both! You do not find many of those! J.S. Bach had a number of successful children -- but their children did not leave a musical (or any other kind of) legacy. You may recall the famous French authors, Alexander Dumas father and son. But the only "father and grandson" combination I can think of is in the Mendelssohn family.
Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86) has been called the greatest of 18th-century Jewish philosophers. He influenced Immanuel Kant and a generation of German philosophers as well as the course of Jewish philosophy. His collected works fill seven volumes and were published in 1843-45. He was born on Sept. 26, 1729, in Dessau, Anhal, in eastern Germany, the son of a poor scribe. He studied German and Latin and was introduced to the philosophy of Maimonides by his teacher David Frankel. He followed Frankel to Berlin, where he became acquainted with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who modeled the central figure of his drama 'Nathan the Wise' after Mendelssohn. In 1763 Mendelssohn won a prize in a literary contest of the Prussian Academy of Arts. As a result King Frederick the Great of Prussia deemed him a "privileged Jew" who would not suffer the usual burdens placed on Jews. Mendelssohn began work on his translation of the Torah in 1780. The translation was written in German and printed with Hebrew characters, and it was considered a stepping-stone to the German language and life beyond the ghetto. Mendelssohn struggled to find a way for Jews to acculturate to German society while maintaining their Jewish values. He died in Berlin on Jan. 4, 1786. Most encyclopedias do not list his sons, but do mention that his grandson was Felix Mendelssohn, the composer.
Felix (1809-47), the composer, pianist, and conductor was a pivotal figure of 19th-century romanticism. He was also a major force in the revival of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. His father, Abraham, was a successful banker in Hamburg when Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born on Feb. 3, 1809. During his boyhood young Mendelssohn wrote many compositions, and he appeared as a pianist in 1818. By 1827 he had composed an overture to 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', his first mature work. Felix Mendelssohn conducted Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion' in Berlin in 1829, an event that marked a revival in the performance of Bach's vocal music. That year he was in London, where he conducted his own 'Symphony in C Minor.' This was the first of ten trips to Great Britain, where he established his main reputation and became a favorite of Queen Victoria.
In 1833 Mendelssohn became music director in Dusseldorf, Germany, where he introduced the masses of Beethoven and Cherubini and the cantatas of Bach. Two years later he was appointed conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, soon making it the most prestigious symphonic organization in Germany. In 1843 he founded the Leipzig Conservatory, where he and Robert Schumann taught composition. After the sudden death of his sister Fanny, to whom he was quite attached, in May 1847, his health deteriorated and he died on November 2.
Abraham Mendelssohn tried to have a distinguished life -- but failed. He baptized his children and gave them the added name Bartholdy to try and shield them from his own childhood experience of suffering from anti-Semitism. He failed, his son Felix never used the added name, and his daughter actually called herself Rebecca Mendelssohn Meden Bartholdy Meden being the Greek for 'never.' In his last days, Abraham Mendelssohn commented, "it was my lack of luck to be born the son of a famous man, and spend my last days as the father of a famous son!' Ah, family... Often it requires a great talent in diplomacy, in patience, in tolerance, and in self control just to keep them all happy. Without family we could all be individuals, taken at our face value. With family, sometimes we are made "guilty by association."
Yitzkhak avinu, our second patriarch, was the transition generation from the founder, Abraham, to the father of the twelve -- Jacob. His moment of glory occurred early in his life, and is forever associated with Abraham more than it was with him -- the Akeda the binding upon the altar at Moriah. However, we are deeply indebted to him -- for living on, for carrying on the traditions of his father, and for passing them on to Jacob, and to all the coming generations.
This weeks reading in the Torah is the portion Toldot, which means generations or history. It begins with the words, "And these are the generations of Isaac, Abrahams son; Abraham fathered Isaac; Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca for his wife, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Padan-Aram, the sister to Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived." [Gen. 25:19-21] It goes on to speak of the birth of the twins, Esau and Yaakov, and then we read about the life of the second patriarch, who, alone of the patriarchs and their immediate descendants, lived his whole life in the Land of Canaan, which became known as the "Promised Land," or "the Land of Israel." A little further into the text of our portion we read, "And there was a famine in the land, beside the first famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Abimelech king of the Philistines to Gerar. And the Lord appeared to him, and said, Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land of which I shall tell you; Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you, and to your seed, I will give all these countries, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father; And I will make your seed multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give to your seed all these countries; and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; Because Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws. And Isaac lived in Gerar;" [Gen. 26:1-6]
Itzkhak Avinu, our father Isaac, was a unique person in the history of Judaism. He went directly from being his fathers son to being his sons father. His place in the account of the patriarchs is the shortest and seemingly the least significant. Yet, there are some aspects of his personality and experience that are very important to our Jewish identity. One of these the Akeda the binding upon the altar at Moriah is primary -- but his connection to the land is also one must recall and remember, for it is the land that we have lived in during the first commonwealth, the second commonwealth -- and our own times of the national rebirth. We read in Deuteronomy, "For the Lord your God brings you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills; A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil, and honey; A land where you shall eat bread without scarceness, you shall not lack any thing in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you may dig bronze. When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which he has given you." [Due. 8:7-10] Because of this passage the land became known as "eretz shiv'at haminim" 'the land of the seven varieties [of produce].'
The Jewish people survived two millennia of persecution to arrive at our own age -- the time of our deliverance. None of the generations that lived during the long dark ages of persecution thought that the deliverance would come at Lake Success, Long Island, New York fifty years ago tomorrow, November 29, 1947. It did -- because of the work and sacrifices of the pioneers who came to the land beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, and those who founded and worked for the cause, a cause that became known as Zionism, whose centennial we celebrate this year!
The religious Jews were against the Zionist enterprise from the start. Yet the great Torah Scholar, Chief Rabbi of Israel, HaRav Kook, accepted and loved the Zionist pioneers and their leaders who had cast away the accepted religious traditions of their time. HaRav Kook claimed that everything he learned about a pious Jewish life led him to believe that these pioneers were imbued with love of God because they were filled with a love for the land. He pointed out that it was no less an authority than the Rambam who said that brakhot, benedictions, awaken hearts to those righteous precepts which are parents to righteous deeds and excellent virtues. The fine points and particulars of each mitzvah are set up in ways which lead on to noble and excellent virtues and the principles of Torah in beliefs and perceptions. And since the love of Eretz Israel is the foundation of the Torah, bringing Klal Israel, the community of the people of God, and the world in its entirety, to recognize the perfection of wholeness of Eretz Yisrael, therefore is the precedence accorded to the object of each brakhah which is linked to its nearness to our land in the Torah. Thus are we taught that whoever is in closest proximity to the Land, and has the most love for the Land, and who puts forth the greatest effort in settling the Land, receives precedence from God in being blessed and is closer to attaining the His perfection of wholeness.
And as to those who love the Land, they may be classed according to their merits and their powers of discernment. For there are those who love the Land for its noble qualities. They thirst to "take pleasure in her stones, And love her dust," [Ps. 102:15] in order to fulfill the mitzvot (commandments) which are dependent upon the Land. They cleave to the Land in pursuance of that lofty aim which is to be found by the community of Israel and the world in its entirety when it is sought on a spiritual level. But there are also those who love the Land and strive for its settlement in order to achieve the aim of building a resting-place for the community of Israel in their Land. This too is a sound and glorious endeavor, for they become guardians of the people Israel, those who put their lives in harms way to save lives, and we have been taught that he who saves even one life, it is as though he had saves all of humanity.
A different approach looks at the verse of Deuteronomy that praises the land, "A land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey;..." Note that the "seven produces of the land" are divided to a group of five and a group of two: 'A land of wheat (one) and barley (two), and vines (three) and fig-trees (four) and pomegranates (five).' And 'A land of olive-trees (one) and honey (two).' The Talmud says that the order of making a brakha for one of these fruits depends on how close it is to "eretz" a land. Olive-trees and honey are only one and two away from land, pomegranates are five away. Olive-trees and honey come first. This, HaRav Kook explained to his fellow orthodox Jews, meant that the actual rebuilding of the land, which is making it bear olive oil and honey, came before "the five" a symbol for Torah, the "five Books of Moshe" even though the pomegranates are symbolic of the seed of Israel.
King Solomon, under the name of Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, pronounced many a word of wisdom. It was he who said that "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven; ...A time to break down, and a time to build up;" We have been very fortunate to have seen with our own eyes the establishment of our Third Commonwealth.
"Shir Hamaalot, Beshuv Hashem et shivat Tzion hayinu kekholmim Tanach - A Song of Ascent. When the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion, we were like men who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing; then they said among the nations, The Lord has done great things for them. The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad." [Ps. 126:1,2]
Ashrenu vetov lanu - We are fortunate and it is well with us.
I feel just a smidgen of a bit blue this shabbat -- blue because it is mid-November, the beginning of Kislev. Up north the bitter Canadian winds begin to blow, the last leaves, long turned a brownish shade of yellow crumble to the ground without any self respect -- they know that no one looks at foliage by this time... It is the beginning of winter, and we are reminded of our discontent. We remember fallen leaders, our young, brave and handsome Johnny, President John F. Kennedy to those who did not share in Camelot... Yitzkhak Rabin, a man of history, who happened to command a Palmakh company that came to the aid of besieged Jerusalem in '48; who happened to be chief of staff when the occasion presented itself to reunite Jerusalem and achieve the most outstanding victory in battle in history -- that of Israel in the six-days' war; who just happened to win an election when Jews and Arabs sat together and concocted an understanding that became known as the Oslo agreement. Yitzkhak Rabin, who has a boyish charm even after seventy years of life -- and who became everybody's friend after being fells by a misguided and ill-trained Jewish boy who was foolish enough to believe that he was doing his dirty deed to save the glory of God and the sovereignty of his people Israel.
November is a month of promise and betrayal, as we recall with all due gratitude Great Britain's recognition of the cause of Jewish national rebirth, with the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, recognizing Zionism's goal of creating in Eretz-Yisrael a new Jewish commonwealth, while at the same time making the declaration so fuzzy with double talk of a "national home" instead of a state -- that in the time of our greatest need, when Hitler made Europe unfit for Jews to live in, we did not have a readily available haven for our brothers to run to.
November is also the month of feverish activities in the hall of the general assembly of the United Nations, which in 1947 gathered to hear a proposal, from the Special Committee on Palestine, which proposed to bring the British mandate to an end, and create in the land two states, one Arab, one Jewish. We recall the activities of our representatives, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, and Abba Eban, and Moshe Sharret, who spent hours upon hours meeting and greeting, wining and dining, oiling and spoiling the representatives of nations newly arrived at Lake Success, N.Y., to be a part of the United Nations, the organization upon which a war weary world pinned hopes of keeping peace and meting out justice to great and small nations alike. Our tireless representatives were winning friends and influencing people, making sure that when the vote came, before the end of the month -- they will have the required two thirds majority necessary to pass the resolution. The time of rebirth was at hand!
November is a sad time, as we remember when the guns fell silent in the first world conflagration, the great hope we put in "the war to end all wars..." Oh, how naive we were! And in another November, almost the same date, the Night of Broken Glass -- when some of the oldest, most beautiful and holy synagogues in Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia were desecrated, put to the torch and destroyed in the first wanton act of violence and destruction that would culminate in the annihilation of two thirds of Europe's Jewry. We cannot and must not forget the great shrines, the priceless libraries, the rare works of art, and the precious lives that we snuffed out on the night of November 9-10 of 1938 -- and in all the dark nights that followed until the world was rid of Hitler and Nazism and every vestige of his vile racist anti-Jewish and anti-humanitarian regime.
And November is the month of the most intensive preparations made by the glorious idealistic Hasmonean brothers, Judah Maccabee and his men, who bravely went to battle, the few against the many, to despoil the enemy and his plan to bring Judaism to its knees. They risked their lives for the right to worship as they please, in an age when none dared speak out against the Hellenistic masters of the civilized world. They demanded the right to worship as they chose.
And they won!
But that is something we will deal with in December, at the end of Kislev.
This weeks Torah reading is the portion Toldot, the sixth portion in the book of Beresheet, Genesis, comprising the end of chapter 25, from verse 19 to chapter 28, verse 9. The word toldot means generations or history, and is spelled three different ways in the Torah! The text begins with the words, "And these are the generations of Isaac, Abrahams son; Abraham fathered Isaac; Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca for his wife, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Padan-Aram, the sister to Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebeccah his wife conceived." [Gen. 25:19-21] The text goes on to speak of the birth of Yitzkhaks twin sons, Essav and Yaakov. The Torah dedicates three portions, with a total of 378 verses, to the history of our first patriarch, Avraham. The Torah also dedicates three portions, with a total of 387 verses, to our third patriarch, Yaakov. The second, or middle, patriarch gets only one portion, with only 106 verses. Is this fair? Is Yitzkhak deprived? Does the Torah, and Jewish history, treat this middle father unjustly? On the face of it, it sure looks that way. However, we are taught that Torah is a three layered text: pshat, the simple text as it stands by a casual reading of the text; drash, the delving into the meaning of the text based on interpretation of the words; and seter, the secrets of the text that are evident only to those who are familiar not only with the words but with the Hebrew language that contains sub-texts and a wealth of meaning generated by the syntax of the verses and the choice of synonyms that accommodate extra-textual meaning.
God Himself, when asked by Moses for His name, informs all who read the Torah, "And God said to Moses, Eheyeh asher Eheyeh; and he said, Thus shall you say to the people of Israel, Eheyeh has sent me to you." [Exodus 3:14] It is clear that His name is Eheyeh which means I am, or I will be. The consonants of the Hebrew have numerical values. The first consonant, Alef, is one, the second, beyt, is two and so on to the last, the twenty second consonant, tav, which is four hundred. Words have a numerical value which is the sum of the value of the consonants that make up the word. The numerical value of the name Eheyeh is twenty one. If we add the digits, two and one, the final sum will be three.
All truth, all that which is real and affirmative and alive stems from our God. It is the energy, or power of God which drives our world and all existence. "Three to the power," in mathematics, means three times three, and gives us the sum of nine. The text say that God told Moses, "Eheyeh asher Eheyeh," I am that I am and mathematically that is a symbol of multiplication, making the formula (I am that I am) 21 times 21 which is 441. Truth is Emet, with a value of 441! If we add the digits four, four and one we get 9. The root of nine is three, just as the root of truth is God. The People Israel have their root in the three fathers, who had a covenant with the Eternal Father, our Creator, Eheyeh. Note that our first and third patriarchs had their story told in three portions, and the sum of the verses, 378 and 387 is 18, whose end-sum is nine emet!
In the book of Ecclesiastes, which is also called The Wisdom of Solomon, we read, "Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls; for he has not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have warmth; but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; a threefold cord is not quickly broken." [Ecc. 4:9-12] What is this all about? How does this relate to our portion and the issue at hand? Avraham was a great man, one who related to God, who argued with God over issues of justice and wickedness, "And Abraham drew near, and said, Will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked?" [Gen. 18:23] Yet, alone he would have lived and died unnoticed and would have been forgotten. "Two are better than one." He needed Sarah for a wife; he needed Yitzkhak for a son. Yaakov was blessed by God, given wives and concubines, and children sons upon sons. However, a tree needs more than branches and leaves it needs roots! Where would Yaakov have come from had it not been for Yitzkhak? "A threefold cord is not quickly broken." Where would have been the truth of Avraham and the continuity of Yaakov without the steadfast connection of the middle father?
Avraham was, without a doubt, the ultimate believer. He sought God and found Him. He heard God and followed Him. He loved God and accepted Him as a bride accepts her groom. So our first patriarch gave us Judaisms faith. Yaakov was, without a doubt, the ultimate father. Almost against his will he became the husband of two, master of two more, and the father of thirteen children that we know of and how many more that we do not... Yaakov was the worthy name-giver of the Children of Israel." So our third patriarch gave us Judaisms people. Yitzkhak, the middle father, the second patriarch, alone of the patriarchs and their immediate descendants, lived his whole life in the Land of Canaan, which became known as the "Promised Land," or "the Land of Israel." He gave us the third element of Eternal Yisrael our connectivity to Judaisms land, which he consecrated by his presence, and the connectivity with one another. As he was the bridge between his father and his faith, and his son and his large family, so do we all continue midor ledor from one generation to the next.
the secret proof of this message? "A threefold cord is not
quickly broken." We are the Shabbat people, and we are taught
that as much as we have guarded the Shabbat, it is the Shabbat that guarded
us and kept us alive. So Avraham and Yaakov had three portions telling
their story together it comes to six, as in "the six days of creation."
Then comes the one day that God hallowed. Shabbat, standing alone and unique,
is the portion of Yitzkhak. Look at the sum of its verses, one hundred and six!
Add the digits and you get the end-sum of seven! How amazing, how revealing,
how mysteriously clear! You may recall that I told you earlier that the name
of our portion, toldot, is spelled three different ways in the Torah
well, the way it is spelled this week occurs seven times
in the Torah, and the numerical value of the word is 840, giving us the end-sum
of 3! From the root comes the Shabbat. The children Israel, born of the threefold
root and Avraham, Yitzkhak and Yaakov, as "A threefold cord,"
was not, is not, nor ever will be broken. Give praise to our God,
whose Torah is the essence and distillation of truth. Amen
At the end of five
weeks of reading in the Torah from B'resheet, we come this week to the portion
Toldot, the sixth portion in Genesis, comprising the end of chapter 25, from
verse 19 to chapter 28, verse 9. The text begins with the words, "Ve'ele
Toldot Yitzkhak And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham's son;
Abraham fathered Isaac; Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca for his
wife, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Padan-Aram, the sister to Laban
the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren;
and the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebeccah his wife conceived." [Gen.
For years I have been learning and teaching this text - and always I felt sorry for the second patriarch. There were a number of reasons for this: the first and third patriarchs had three portions to tell their story - and Yitzkhak only one; the Jewish people are known as "the seed of Abraham" or "the children of Israel" - but not ever as "descendants of Isaac." Sarah said, "God has made me laugh, so that all who hear will laugh with me." [Gen. 21:6] Thus was this child called Yitzkhak, which is to say "the butt of laughter." Poor man, I reasoned, this pathetic anti-hero, born to a great father, sire of a great son - and destined to live in the shadow of both.
This week, at the conclusion of weeks and months of bad news and reports of national and international setbacks, I came to this portion with trepidation - wanting to find a message of hope and comfort, and with a preconceived bias that my hope will be dashed and my search prove futile. Yet, as I looked at the first words of the text in the Hebrew, a new light began to shine upon me, and I saw something I had not seen before in the text and the sub-text. In a stormy, dark sky, I saw the silver lining!
So the text begins with "Ve'ele Toldot Yitzkhak ben Avraham" - And these are the generations of Isaac son of Avraham - What is important is not the name Yitzkhak ben Avraham! The name is merely an adverb. The "action" is in the verb "Toldot" - generations or history. What is the Torah telling us?
The word toldot' - meaning generations' or history' - with which the portion begins, and from where it got its name, is spelled three different ways in different places in the Torah! As you can tell by hearing the word, there are four consonants in the word, "T," "L," "D" and "T."
The simplest, or "stripped" spelling of the word toldot,' tav, lamed, dalet, tav - is used only once in the whole Tanakh. In is in Genesis 25:12, "These are the generations of Yishma'el." It is interesting to note that the sum numeric value of this spelling of the word is 6.
This "stripped" spelling of the word toldot' has the same numeric value as the Hebrew Sheker - lie! It is used only to speak of the history of Yishma'el, the "false" son of Abraham, the one who did not live up to his father's standards of continuing in the covenant of God, and who was not to inherit his father's priesthood. I came to realize that the sub-text message of the spelling of his "Toldot" tells us that this branch of the family of our progenitor is a false path that leads away from the root of Abraham and the covenant with God.
The "fullest" spelling of the word, using a "vav"for each vowel, is tav, vav, lamed, dalet, vav, tav - and is used twice in the Tanakh, once in the Torah, in Genesis 2:4, "These are the generations of the heavens and the earth..." The second is in the Writings, in the scroll of Ruth 4:18, "These are the generations of Peretz..." The numeric sum value of this spelling is 9.
This "full" spelling appears two times, once in the Torah, where we are told of the history of this world we live in, and once in the Writings, the third part of the Tanakh, where we are given the history of the House of Peretz, and Jesse - and David, sweet singer of Israel, the progenitor of the Kings of all Israel anointed by Samuel the Seer at the instruction of God Almighty. Two histories, like the two generations of the Fathers of our people, Yitzkhak ben Avrham, about whom we read this week. This "full" spelling has the numeric sum value, 9, which is also the value of "emet"- truth. So, unlike the "stripped" spelling which was indicative of a lie - this time we are dealing with the truth.
Finally the third spelling, in which the vowel is placed after the first consonant only, I call "half full" - tav, vav, lamed, dalet, tav - and this particular spelling seems to have been the most popular - it is used seven times in the Tanakh, all of them in the Torah, six in Beresheet, and one in Bamidbar - numbers. The verses are, "These are the generations of Adam..." [Gen. 5:1]; "These are the generations of No'akh..." [Gen. 6:9]; "These are the generations of the sons of No'akh..." [Gen. 10:1]; "These are the generations of Shem..." [Gen. 11:10]; "These are the generations of Terakh..." [Gen.11:27]; "These are the generations of Yitzkhak..." [Gen. 25:19]. The seventh and last is, "These are the generations of Aharon and Moshe..." [Num. 3:1]. The numeric final sum of this spelling is 3.
What is the significance of this third spelling, I asked myself, and why does it appear as many times as it does, in the places that it does? I reviewed the passages, and realized that there was a thread running through from one to another: this is the history of Adam, Noakh, Noakh's sons, Shem, Terakh, and Yitzkhak - all the progenitors of the people Yisra'el. The first five appeared before our portion, and only one comes after. Six mentions are in the book of Beresheet - the story of creation, of the six days God took to make a world and get it ready for the seventh day, the crown of creation - the Shabbat. The names mentioned in Genesis build up humanity, from Adam to Terakh, in five stages - so that the sixth personage is the human manifestation of the sixth day of creation - the time when God uses the image of the divine to create mankind. Yitzkhak is that sixth stage! He alone, of the patriarchs, is a building block on the way to God's servants - Moshe and Aharon, first priest and first prophet, the seventh "half full" spelling of toldot,' in the fourth book of the Torah.
Moshe and Aharon, who took Israel out of bondage in Egypt to the service of God at Sinai, where revelation occurred. At Sinai came the covenant with God, and the institution of the Shabbat, God's hallowed day of rest, which is, in fact, the seventh day of creation! Where does creation begin? It begins with God's initiative. The first word of Torah, "Beresheet," incorporates the infinite existence and power of God to the physical and three dimensional existence of our world. At Sinai, Moshe first encountered God, and when he asked God for His name, if back in Egypt he is queried about it, "they shall say to me, What is his name, what shall I say to them?" [Ex. 3:13] God answers and says, "Ehe'ye asher ehe'ye; and He said, Thus shall you say to the people of Israel, Ehe'ye has sent me to you." [Ex. 3:14] Ehe'ye means "I shall be," and not "I am," as it is traditionally translated. "I shall be" denotes action with a future, which is to say dynamic energy. God is that energy, that future. So, the closest we have to a name of God'is the Hebrew "Ehe'ye." The numeric final sum of this name - you guessed it, is three! Do not misunderstand my words, I am not speaking of a trinity, only of a numeric value for a Hebrew term. God is singular and unique, indivisible as He is invisible - but His "name" in the Hebrew has the value of three. Just as there are three patriarchs of the people Israel, which does not negate or detract from the unity of the people. We are the Seed of Abraham - and the Children of Israel. We are also the people who exist and seek pardon through the bravery and devotion of Yitzkhak. He is the Lamb of the Sacrifice, the banner of Avraham, the blessing of Ya'akov.
Now I look at father Yitzkhak, and I see him, and his name, in a different light altogether. He is not the subject of laughter. It is not the issue that those who see him will laugh. Quite the contrary! Yitzkhak, by the symbolism revealed in the Torah this week in the subtext, is a giant, a rock that cannot be moved. He shall stand firm in the face of adversity, and laugh at danger and threats. He puts His trust in God Almighty. The numeric sum of his history is 3 - the same as "the name of God" given to Moshe in the Presence of God at the burning bush. Three, the numeric sum of light and the root of 9, the root and source of truth. May we always live by His truth and by His light - and may we be sure of our faith and His covenant, and laugh at adversity, as Yitzkhak did.
This Shabbat is the first in the month of November - that, you all know. However, I will bet that few of you are aware that it is the first Shabbat in the month of Kislev as well, last Tuesday and Wednesday having been "Rosh Khodesh"- the beginning of the month. Since we celebrate the renewing of the Torah cycle on Simkhat Torah, which comes at the very end of the first month of the new year - this must be the sixth portion of the new cycle. This week's reading in the Torah is the portion Toldot, comprising the end of chapter 25, from verse 19 to chapter 28, verse 9. The text begins with the words, "Ve'ele Toldot Yitzkhak And these are the generations of Isaac..." However, the text continues with the words, "... Abraham's son; Abraham fathered Isaac; And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah for his wife, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Padan-Aram, the sister to Laban the Aramean. And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. And the children struggled together inside her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to inquire of the Lord." [Gen. 25:19-21] We ask ourselves, with more than a little curiosity, "why do we need to have Father Yitzkhak's pedigree? Would we mistake him with some other Yitzhak?" And we can further ask, if this is to be the story of Yitzhak, why do we, at once, speak about his wife?
This can be a sensitive issue with some men who feel that in our tradition, it is much more difficult to be a man than in other societies. Men have obligations, not rights. Others, more steeped in tradition, would respond by saying, "does it not say in the Torah, Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall be one flesh.' [Gen 2:24]?" If we accept the Torah's teaching, then we recognize that "his wife"is, in fact, a part of him (and he a part of her, to be sure, all you women's lib people...) and there is no problem with the text. The two of them are struggling to have heirs to whom they can pass on the wonderful traditions learned by Abraham and continued by Yitzhak.
Now let's look back at the text and see the struggle for continuity: Sarah our mother could not conceive, and when the angels came and informed her of her coming happy occasion of birthing Yitzhak - she laughed. The whole event was a laughing matter to her: a joy, a release, a fulfillment of promises made long before. Not so for Yitzhak and his wife, Rivkah. While his name may have been laughter his life was far from it! His story, presented this week in our portion, begins with the word "Toldot." The root of this word is "Yod," "Lamed" and "Dalet" which means birth.' It is not surprising, then, if the verse, which begins with "this is the story of Yitzhak," turns out to be the story of Rebecca and the twins much more than his story!
And maybe, just maybe, there is a message here, between the lines, over the lines, a subliminal message that every Jewish mother knows, as she asks her grown son, "so, when will you bring home some nice Jewish girl?" This is not a joke, and I am not being cynical or cute - nor am I trying to ingratiate myself with my women folk wife, mother in law, or daughters. I suggest, quite seriously, that the Torah is quite correct when it teaches that God himself observed that "It is not good that the man should be alone;" and "for Adam there was not found a help to match him." [ibid 2:18,20]
Yitzhak is the middle patriarch, which, of course, means father.' How can we expect him to be a father unless we speak about his wife and her struggle to become a mother? Which, to my mind, carries an important eye opening fact to all of us, men: without women, we would not last beyond one generation! Abraham, Yitzhak and Ya'akov were most fortunate that God related to them and made covenants with them. However, they were much more blessed by the women that they got as wives! It was the women, Sarah, Rebecca, Rakhel and Leah, who contributed their special God given ability to bear children to make the promise become a reality. Let us never forget, and let us always appreciate the companionship, the trust, the love and the devotion that every generation of Jewish women brought to their men, to insure the perpetuity of God's promise in the new life that they brought into the world.
This week's reading
in the Torah is the portion Toldot, which means generations' or
history. It begins with the words, "And these are the generations of Isaac,
Abraham's son; Abraham fathered Isaac; Isaac was forty years old when he took
Rebecca for his wife, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Padan-Aram, the
sister to Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because
she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived."
Itzkhak Avinu, our father Isaac, was a unique person in the history of Judaism. He went directly from being his father's son to being his son's father. His place' in the account of the patriarchs is the shortest and seemingly the least significant. Beyond that, the Text seems to say that Yitzkhak was a tool of his father and a fool of his wife and son. The relationship between Yitzkhak and his wife was very different than that of his father, Abraham, with his mother, Sarah. We don't ever read of any kind of communication between Yitzkhak and Rebecca. The Torah text may suggest the reason for this: "And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she lighted off the camel. For she had said to the servant, What man is this who walks in the field to meet us? And the servant had said, It is my master; therefore she took a veil, and covered herself." [Gen. 24:64,65] Normally we understand this passage to suggest that Rebecca behaved in the manner of the Middle East and the ancient world where modesty dictated that women's faces are not seen. However, I would like to suggest to you that the words " she took a veil, and covered herself" actually tell us that she "veiled" her emotions and thoughts, and rarely, if ever, confronted her husband, Yitzkhak with her concerns.
Next the text tells us that "it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, " [Ibid. 27:1] and commentary informs us that he was blind because he could not see, or perceive, that Esau was not a worthy successor to his father Abraham, and to himself as the head of the family. Hence, his "blindness" makes necessary the guile and coniving of Rebecca with her favored son, Yaakov.
A few weeks ago, we read the haftarah from Isaiah which included the following passage: "Hear, you deaf; and look, you blind, that you may see. Who is blind, but my servant? or deaf, as my messenger whom I sent? Who is blind as he who is perfect, and blind as the Lord's servant? Seeing many things, but you observe not; opening the ears, but he hears not. The Lord is well pleased for his righteousness' sake; he will magnify the Torah, and make it glorious." [Isaiah 42:18-21] I thought of this passage as I was studying this week's portion, and I asked myself, "Who was blind, and who could see clearly?" Was it really Yitzkhak who did not know what his sons were like, and was the cunning and cheating of the mother and her "good son" really necessary?
You know, I'm sure, that "the proof of the pudding is in the tasting..." so look at the blessing of Yitzkhak to (the one he is led to believe is) his son Esau: "See, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which the Lord has blessed; Therefore God give you of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine; Let people serve you, and nations bow down to you; be lord over your brothers, and let your mother's sons bow down to you; cursed be every one who curses you, and blessed be he who blesses you." [Gen. 27:27-29] What sort of a blessing is this? It is a physical, touchy-feely blessing, dealing with life in the immediate and most concrete sense. What is missing from this blessing? Any spirituality or higher moral atributes.
It is interesting to note that Ya'akov, the "good son" that rebecca favored, went along with his mother's plan, worrying only about getting caught in the act of cheating his father and taking the place of his brother. He protests to his mother, "My father perhaps will feel me, and I shall seem to him as a deceiver; and I shall bring a curse upon me, and not a blessing." [Ibid. 27:12] It never enters his mind to ask his mother what would happen, inevitably, when Esau returns from the field, and the ruse is discovered...
What does happen, you may recall, is that Yitzkhak says to Esau that a blessing once given cannot be withdrawn, and he must accept his fate. Yet, does the cheated father hold a grudge against his son Yaakov and his wife? No, indeed. In fact, we read in the text that for once Rebecca turns to her husband and discusses plans for Ya'akov's future - even if she does not give an honest and full report of what is on her mind: "46. And Rebekah said to Isaac, I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth; if Jacob takes a wife of the daughters of Heth, such as these who are of the daughters of the land, what good shall my life be to me?" [Ibid 27:46]
Yitzkhak is the one who sends his son to the house of his brother-in-law. He blesses him before he leaves with the following words, "And God Almighty bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a multitude of people; And give the blessing of Abraham to you, and to your seed with you; that you may inherit the land where you are a stranger, which God gave to Abraham." [Ibid. 28:3,4] Compare this blessing to the one obtained under false pretense earlier. Which is the "better" blessing?
Jacob escapes the wrath of his brother, but must make penance for his transgression against his father and his brother. He lives for twenty years with the arch-deceiver of all times, Lavan the Aramean. He is cheated on his wedding day, he is cheated at payday, and he is almost cheated out of his future before he is ready to "resume his place" as third patriarch. His mother, poor, misguided rebecca, is dealt with even more cruelly. She is deprived of her favorite son, she is not allowed to see his off-springs, her grand children, and the Torah does not even mention her death. In fact, in the aftermath of her misguided interruption in the affairs of her husband and her sons she is never heard of again, except in the verse "And Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, died, and she was buried beneath Beth-El under an oak; and the name of it was called Allon-Bachuth." [Ibid. 35:8] We have never heard of Deborah, and should not care for the fact that she died. I believe the verse was placed here to remind us that we never heard of the death of the nurse's mistress!
Now we can fully understand the words of Isaiah, "Who is blind as he who is perfect, and blind as the Lord's servant? " It turns out that the blind saw clearly and acted as was expected of him, and it was the wise and the visionary who went astray after his and her own interpretation of which way the future should unravel. A good lesson to keep in mind as we struggle with our own problems. The words of the prophet Isaiah come to mind, "Be broken up, O you people, and be dismayed; and give ear, all you of far countries; gird yourselves, and you shall be broken in pieces; gird yourselves, and you shall be broken in pieces. Take counsel together, and it shall come to nothing; speak the word, and it shall not stand; for God is with us. Utzu etza vtofar, dabru davar vlo yakum, ki imanu el!" [Isaiah 8:90.10] May the Lord our God continue to be with us, to guide and protect us, to lead us on His path to the land and the time of His promise. Amen
Torah reading is the portion Toldot, the sixth portion in the book of Beresheet,
Genesis, comprising the end of chapter 25, from verse 19 – to chapter
28, verse 9. The text begins with the words, “And these are the generations
of Isaac, Abraham’s son; Abraham fathered Isaac; Isaac was forty years
old when he took Rebecca for his wife, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of
Padan-Aram, the sister to Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his
wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebeccah
his wife conceived.” [Gen. 25:19-21] The text goes on to speak of the
birth of Yitzkhak’s twin sons, Essav and Ya’akov. The word ‘toldot’
means ‘generations’ or ‘history.’ The root of the word
is ‘yoled’ which means giving birth – and is spelled three
different ways in the Torah!
Yitzkhak Avinu, our father Isaac, was a unique person in the history of Judaism. He went directly from being his father’s son, “the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son” to being his son’s father, “and Rebeccah his wife conceived.” Even though his name was Yitzkhak, meaning ‘he shall laugh,” this is no laughing matter. It reminds me of the saying that everyone gets his fifteen minutes of fame. The history of Father Yitzkhak, is fleeting – as is all of history.
History is connected record of events remembered by the calendar. We are just about half way through the month of November, a fateful and tragic month in Jewish history. November is a month of promise and betrayal, as we recall with all due gratitude Great Britain's recognition of the cause of Jewish national rebirth, with the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, recognizing Zionism's goal of creating in Eretz-Yisrael a new Jewish commonwealth. In the celebration of that first recognition of our aspirations for national rebirth, we cannot but recall that Great Britain was promising the Zionist something that was not in its hands to give, while at the same time making the declaration so ‘fuzzy’ with double talk of a "national home" instead of a state – that in the time of our greatest need, when Hitler made Europe unfit for Jews to live in, we did not have a readily available haven for our brothers to run to.
November is a sad time, as we remember the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when the guns fell silent in the first world conflagration. What brutality the veterans of that war had to endure, fighting months and even years in the trenches, seeing friends and comrades, an entire generation of young and innocent men, bleed to death for the empty vanity of their military and political leaders on both sides of the lines. The great hope we put in the concept fo "the war to end all wars" – Oh, how naive we were! And on another November, twenty years short one day from Armistice Day, came “Krystal Nacht” – the Night of Broken Glass – when more than a thousand Jewish houses of worship and scholarship, among them some of the oldest, most beautiful and holy synagogues in Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia were desecrated, put to the torch and destroyed in the first state-organized and sponsored wanton act of violence and destruction that would culminate in the annihilation of two thirds of Europe's Jewry. We cannot and must not forget the great shrines, the priceless libraries, the rare works of art, and the precious lives that were snuffed out on the night of November 9-10 of 1938, and in all the dark nights and horror-filled days that followed until the world was rid of Hitler and Nazism and every vestige of his vile, racist, anti-Jewish and anti-humanitarian regime.
We remember November-struck fallen leaders, our nation’s young, brave and handsome “Johnny,” President John Fitzgerald Kennedy to those who did not share in “Camelot” – and Yitzkhak Rabin, a young company commander in the Palmakh who rushed to the aid of besieged Jerusalem in 1948; who as chief of staff of IDF headed the forces that reunited Jerusalem and achieved the miraculous victory over enemies in the south, the east and the north, in six days of battle; who, as the first of his generation to head the government of Israel, signed the Oslo agreement, hoping against hope to bring about an end to war and death between Israel and its neighbors. Yitzkhak Rabin, who had a boyish charm and optimism – even after seventy years of life – both leaders felled by misguided misfits.
November is also the month of feverish activities in the hall of the general assembly of the recently founded United Nations, which in 1947 gathered to hear a motion of the Special Committee on Palestine, to bring the British mandate in Palestine to an end, and create in the land two states, one Arab, one Jewish. We recall the efforts of our representatives, Moshe Sharret, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, and Abba Eban, who spent their days and nights meeting and greeting, wining and dining, oiling and spoiling representatives of nations from the old world and central and south America, newly arrived at Lake Success, N.Y., to be a part of the new world organization upon which a war weary world pinned hopes of keeping peace and meting out justice to great and small nations alike. Our tireless representatives were winning friends and influencing people, making sure that when the vote came, before the end of the month -- they will have the required two thirds majority necessary to pass the resolution. The time of rebirth was at hand!
This week has added another event to the long list of November historical events. The death of the arch-terrorist, responsible for the death of innocent children, women and men of all nationalities and races cannot go unnoticed. His name shall be recalled in the company of Torquemada and Attila the Hun, Nero and Nebuchadnezer, Haman and Hitler. We pray that his demise may usher a new age – an age of healing the rift between the seed of Yitzkhak and Yishmael. May those who take the helm of leadership in the councils of Israel’s neighbors recall God’s blessing of Abraham, “And I will bless those who bless you, and curse him who curses you; and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed.” [Genesis 12:3] Let the coming months and year be a time of December and Kislev – of “peace on earth, good will towards men” (and, assuredly, women, too), a time of celebration, of lights and gifts, family and fried foods, rejoicing and uplifting of the spirits – a time of freedom from opression and rededication to God.
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