Judaism: Toldot: Generations Past, Generations to Come
Parashat Toldot begins with some unexpected and uncharacteristic turns of phrase: “And these are the descendants of Yitzchak, the son of Avraham: Avraham begat Yitzchak. And Yitzchak was forty years old when he took Rivkah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean, from Paddan Aram, the sister of Lavan the Aramean, as his wife. And Yitzchak prayed to HaShem in the presence of his wife because she was barren” (Genesis 25:19-21).
What makes this so unexpected and uncharacteristic is the repetitiousness, in the Torah which is usually so brief and so economical with its words. We already know that Yitzchak was the son of Avraham – so why does the Torah have to tell us this? And why does it tell us this twice in a single verse (“…Yitzchak, the son of Avraham: Avraham begat Yitzchak”)?
And why does the Torah have to introduce this section with the words, “And these are the descendants of Yitzchak”? Would we not have known just from reading the text that the Torah is recounting here Yitzchak’s genealogy?
Indeed, in the first two verses of our parashah, the only new information we learn is that Yitzchak was forty years old when he married Rivkah. Had the Torah written simply, “Yitzchak was forty years old when he took Rivkah as his wife. And Yitzchak prayed to HaShem…”, then would we have missed anything?
Several commentators have addressed this. The Midrash Lekach Tov comments on the phrase “Avraham begat Yitzchak”: “Only after he was circumcised and renamed Avraham, was Yitzchak born to him”.
The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Efrayim, Luntchitz, Lvov [Lemberg], and Prague, 1550-1619) has a comments: “Even though the Torah already said that Yitzchak was the son of Avraham, it nevertheless had to add ‘Avraham begat Yitzchak’ because it had earlier referred to ‘Yishmael Avraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian bore’ (Genesis 25:12). But though he is called ‘Avraham’s son’ there, his descendants are ascribed to Hagar and follow her. So here, the Torah emphasizes that the appellations ‘son’ and ‘descendants’ all apply to Avraham.
In Hebrew, there is a difference between a ‘son’ and a ‘descendant’: sometimes even someone who is not a biological descendant is called a ‘son’, such as a student; or Moshe who was called Pharaoh’s daughter’s ‘son’ (Exodus 2:10)… Also, Avraham is called ‘father of a multitude of nations’ (Genesis 17: 4, 5), even though he did not biologically beget them… Therefore Yishmael is called only Avraham’s ‘son’ [and not his ‘descendant’], because he did not inherit his nature…; he eventually left [Avraham’s ways] for depraved conduct, which is why his ancestry is ascribed to Hagar: he had inherited the nature of Hagar the Egyptian”.
Centuries later, the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, Russia and Poland 1816-1893), in his Torah commentary Ha’amek Davar, would similarly explain: “‘And these are the descendants of Yitzchak’ – the way his life progressed. ‘Avraham begat Yitzchak’ – this is the total of his descendants, because in all his ways and all that he did he was officially known as Avraham’s son. Yet this was not the case with Yishmael, who was also Avraham’s son, though his actions did not identify him as Avraham’s son”.
Let us return to the Midrash Lekach Tov cited above, which begins its discourse on Parashat Toldot by quoting “A good person bequeaths to grandchildren, and the wealth of a sinner is held in store for a righteous person” (Proverbs 13:22), and then proceeds to expound: “‘A good person’ – this is Avraham our father who bequeathed everything he had to Yitzchak, as it says ‘Avraham gave everything he had to Yitzchak’ (Genesis 25:5)… ‘The wealth of a sinner’ is the wealth of Yishmael and of [Avraham’s] concubines, as [Sarah] said, ‘The son of this slave-woman shall not inherit with my son, with Yitzchak’ (Genesis 21:10); and as for Avraham’s concubines’ sons, Avraham gave them gifts and sent them away from Yitzchak”.
Another Midrash gives a similar perspective: “‘And these are the descendants of Yitzchak’…the descendants of Yishmael and the sons of Keturah were disqualified…. What does the phrase ‘Avraham begat Yitzchak’ teach us? – That he was not called Avraham until he was prophetically told that he would beget Yitzchak” (Midrash Sechel Tov).
And another Midrash asks bluntly: “Did he then begat Yitzchak alone? Has the Torah not already told us of Yishmael’s sons and Keturah’s sons?!” (Bereishit Rabbati).
And this Midrash proceeds to answer its own question: “However, all these were considered by him as nothing. Only Yitzchak was important, as He said ‘Because through Yitzchak will your seed be called’ (Genesis 21:12). And since Avraham saw that none of these were ever going to receive the Torah, he dispatched them all eastwards, as it says ‘he sent them away from Yitzchak his son…eastward’ (Genesis 25:6)”.
So much for the relationship between Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yishmael.
Let us now proceed to the Torah’s verbose description of Rivkah: “…Rivkah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean, from Paddan Aram, the sister of Lavan the Aramean”. Why does the Torah have to tell us yet again of Rivkah’s family background, which we already know? After all, we already know perfectly well whose daughter Rivkah was, whose sister she was, what their nationality was, and where they lived!
We return to Midrash Lekach Tov: “Why does it say ‘the Aramean’? Rabbi Yitzchak said: It cannot be to teach us that he came from Aram Naharayyim, because has already told us that he came from Paddan Aram. Furthermore, why does it say ‘the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean’? And why does it then add ‘…the sister of Lavan the Aramean’? Since it describes her as ‘the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean’, I already know that Lavan his son was also an Aramean’! But what this means is that her father was a liar, and her brother was a liar, and all the people around her were liars – yet this righteous woman emerged from their midst ‘like a rose among the thorns’ (Song of Songs 2:2)”.
This refers to the Hebrew word “Arami” (“Aramean”), which is a cognate of “rama’i” (“liar”).
And the Midrash Sechel Tov says something similar: “‘Rivkah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean…’ – he was a liar, a master of lies and deceit. ‘From Paddan Aram’ – literally. ‘The sister of Lavan the Aramean’ – he was just like his father. ‘Yitzchak… took Rivkah…as his wife’ – that is to say, she was worthy of being his wife, because even though she was born amongst these liars, she remained innocent”.
The Talmud provides the contrast between Rivkah and her son, Eisav: “Rabbi Elazar said: A tzaddik who dwelt between two evil people did not learn from their ways, and an evil person dwelt between two tzaddikim and did not learn from their ways. The tzaddik who dwelt between two evil people and did not learn from their ways was the prophet Obadiah [who dwelt between Ahab and Jezebel – Rashi], and the evil person who dwelt between two tzaddikim and did not learn from their ways was Eisav” (Yoma 38b).
The prophet Obadiah has the shortest Book in the entire Tanach – just one chapter, 21 verses, 291 words, 1,120 letters long. And his entire prophetic message is directed against Edom, the descendant of Eisav. And the Talmud cites Rabbi Yitzchak’s rationalisation for this: “G-d said: Let Obadiah, who dwelt between two evil people and did not learn from their ways, come and prophecy against the evil Eisav who dwelt between two tzaddikim [Yitzchak and Rivkah – Rashi] and did not learn from their ways” (Sanhedrin 39b).
This, perhaps more than anything else, encapsulates the origins of the Jewish nation. Avraham – long before he was Avraham, while he was yet Avram, in Ur of the Chaldees – was born and brought up among the evil idolaters; yet he refused to be influenced by them. His son Yitzchak, though certainly brought up by tzaddikim, was nevertheless surrounded by evil people – the Canaanites, the Philistines, all the idolaters in Canaan who sacrificed their own children to Moloch.
Yitzchak could have chosen to learn the ways of his wicked surroundings instead of his righteous family – as indeed his half-brother Yishmael did; but he remained true to his father Avraham’s teachings.
Likewise Ya’akov could have chosen to learn the ways of his wicked surroundings instead of his righteous family – as indeed his twin brother Eisav did; but he remained true to his father Yitzchak and his grandfather Avraham’s teachings.
Such are the origins of the Jewish nation, such is our identity, and such is our destiny. And a powerful though somewhat surreal Midrash tells us that in the time to come, we are destined one day to influence the other sons of Avraham – those whom he drove out from his home so that they would not influence his son Yitzchak to evil while the nation was in its earliest infancy:
“He said to them: My sons! You must know that my son Yitzchak is righteous and innocent, and every nation that will ever enslave his descendents will be hurled into Gehinnom. So stand up, go from him, so that you will be saved from the judgement of Gehinnom! They said to him: Our father! Until when will we dwell there? He said to them: This will be your sign: as long as Israel will be subjugated among the nations, remain in your places. But when Israel will be redeemed, come and listen to Israel, so you will merit [to eat at] their table… And from where do we learn that in the days of the mashiach they will come to serve Israel? – The prophet says, ‘An abundance of camels will surround you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba will come, bearing gold and frankincense, and they will proclaim the praises of HaShem’ (Isaiah 60:6). And this is the implication of ‘Avraham begat Yitzchak’.