L'dor vador nagid godlecha ... "From generation to generation, we will tell of Your greatness..."
Repeated daily in our prayers, this promise to God and to ourselves is easy to take for granted, until it is our turn to ensure the continuity of the covenant into the next generation. This week's parashah, Tol'dot, is a gem of a story about Jewish continuity. In compact and highly dramatic fashion, it tells us exactly what is required of us in terms that we can all understand.
Tol'dot (appropriately translated "Descendants") is the story of Isaac. It passes almost without notice, sandwiched between the drama of Avram/Abraham's revolutionary vision and the convoluted path of Jacob/Israel toward transformation. Yet Isaac, the second patriarch, scarred as he is by his father's intense visionary devotion and buffeted by the demands of his own fractious family, epitomizes "generativity." Isaac, who never received a blessing from his own father, is the first to bless his son, thereby conveying to Jacob the heritage of God's covenant with Abraham.
Many commentaries on Tol'dot, noting Isaac's seeming passivity and blindness, choose to focus instead on Jacob's trickery, Esau's cavalier behavior, or Rebecca's intervention on behalf of her favored son as a motivating force in the story. But Isaac is the one who, without fanfare, sees God (Genesis 26:2, 24), receives God's blessing in the same language in which Abraham was blessed, and then seeks to pass that blessing along. (The Hebrew root, beit reish khaf, meaning "blessing" occurs 34 times within this brief 106-verse parashah, reflecting its centrality to the action.)
How does Isaac do this?
First, Isaac redigs his father's wells and goes on to dig more wells until he finds "ample space to increase in the land" (Genesis 26:22). As Peter Pitzele points out, Isaac is not an innovator. Rather, "by repeating his father's acts, he takes those one time events and transforms them into a model or paradigm" (Our Father's Wells, Harper Collins Publishers, 1995, p. 149). He thus inherits the blessing himself and is capable of not only physically fathering children but also modeling covenant commitment for them.
Second, conveying the blessing of Abraham and with it the covenant with God to the next generation is of vital importance to both Isaac and Rebecca. It consumes the remainder of their story, with Rebecca's statement that she will assume Jacob's curse should he be discovered in his deception and with Isaac's anticipation of his own death (by sixty years) so that he can give his blessing now to Esau. Isaac and Rebecca care very deeply about ensuring the continuity of the covenant and that message is conveyed to their offspring, both of whom desperately want their father's blessing.
Finally, Isaac seems to proceed somewhat by trial and error. Neither the blessing he initially gives very tentatively to Jacob nor the blessing wrenched from him by Esau's cry is Abraham's blessing. Only near the end of the parashah, when Jacob is setting out on his own journey, does the blessing of Abraham flow wholeheartedly from Isaac to his son (Genesis 28:1-4).
L'dor vador... Isaac teaches us that blessing, experiencing our covenant with God, can only be passed from generation to generation when we ourselves, despite our past history or perhaps because of its unique power, are fully engaged in covenant-redigging our ancestors' wells and renaming them to make them our own. Only then can we bless our children, passionately if imperfectly, and send them on their way.
At the time of this writing in 1997, Dru Greenwood, M.S.W., was the director of the UAHC William and Lottie Daniel Department of Outreach.