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Tol'dot: A Covenant of Generations

  • Tol'dot: A Covenant of Generations

    Tol'dot, Genesis 25:19−28:9
D'var Torah By: 
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.

An Unlikely Hero
Davar Acher By: 
Nina J. Mizrahi

Who was Isaac? Beyond identifying him as the second of our three Patriarchs, the Torah offers few insights into Isaac's life or thoughts. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz suggest that Isaac's entire life can be divided into six parts: his birth; his near-sacrifice; his marriage; the digging of wells; his relationship with Abimelech; and the blessing of his sons, Jacob and Esau. For the most part, Isaac is passive; he is acted upon by others.

Although we do not have much information about Isaac, parashat Tol'dot does shed some light on his adult years. Chapter 26 of Genesis deals exclusively with Isaac yet is frequently overlooked. In many ways, as the Plaut Commentary points out, Isaac's life merely mirrors many of his father's experiences. The image of Isaac redigging the wells his father had dug underscores this point, implying that nothing Isaac does seems to have major significance.

Isaac is the child of a famous father, whose dominating presence leaves little room for his son to prove himself. Yet daily in the Amidah, we remember Isaac as one of the three Patriarchs, the second of the first three generations of our people. Isaac did, after all, give us Jacob, who became Israel, father of the twelve tribes. Isaac, sandwiched between Abraham and Jacob, is like a middle child who often sublimates his needs for the sake of others. He facilitates the fulfillment of their dreams through his mere existence.

Isaac is a second-generation Jew, an unlikely hero at first glance. Elie Wiesel identifies him as the first survivor, someone destined to teach future survivors of Jewish history that despair need not overtake us. He argues that it is possible to survive and, in accordance with the meaning of Isaac's name, retain the ability to laugh. Like later survivors, Isaac lived under a shadow created by trauma, yet he refused to live out his life as a bitter man. Isaac's life is not destroyed by anger or hatred; rather it is marked by his being a man of peace.

Morris Adler points out that Isaac is remembered as one who carried on the tradition to the next generation. Without Isaac, Abraham's great achievements would not have endured. There are the generations of trailblazers, and there are the generations of preservers-the guardians of tradition. When we speak of shalshelet hakabbalah, the link of tradition that connects generation to generation, we are painfully aware of the daily challenges we face in linking our generation to the next. Isaac stands out as a stabilizing force whose existence-albeit on the surface less spectacular than that of his father and his son-is indeed significant. Isaac reminds us that we need points in our lives at which we must stop to reflect on who we are becoming and to establish constancy and continuity by focusing on the preservation of the tradition we have inherited.

Suggested Readings: Adin Steinsaltz, Biblical Images (Basic Books, 1984) and Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God(Summit, 1976).

At the time of this writing in 1997, Nina J. Mizrahi was the rabbi-educator of Temple Judea, Massapequa, NY.

Reference Materials: 

Tol'dot, Genesis 25:19–28:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 173–189; Revised Edition, pp. 172–189;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 133–156