Parashat Toldot, 5778

We’ll Always Have Parents: 2017
A D’var Torah for Toldot
by Rabbi Rena H. Kieval

In the classic movie Casablanca, the ill-fated lovers played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman share these words of comfort: “We’ll always have Paris.” A playful poem by Mary Jo Salter uses that line to make a point. The poem, titled, “We’ll Always Have Parents,” notes that, “We’ll always have them…they’re in our baggage.” The poem calls to mind what a wise and learned person once told me: that no matter how old we are, most of us shape our lives in response to our parents. We may define ourselves in a positive way by who our parents were, and what they taught us, and we may also define ourselves against who our parents were, and what they taught us. Most of us are driven and shaped by mixed legacies. Whatever those legacies are, “we’ll always have parents.”

Parashat Toldot reflects this truth in its opening lines. “This is the story of Isaac son of Abraham…” who married “Rebekah, daughter of Betuel, sister of Lavan.” As Isaac and Rebekah begin their adult, married life and start their own family, the Torah pointedly recalls their parents and a sibling. These characters are already known to the reader, so we can assume that the Torah repeats them not to inform us about genealogy, but rather to remind us of the family legacies that both Isaac and Rebekah carry. The text is telling us at the outset to read these stories with the characters’ family histories, with their baggage, in mind.

We note also the multi-layered meaning of the parashah’s leading word, from which it takes its name, toldot.Ve-eileh toldot…” In the JPS translation, “This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham…“ ‘Story’ captures the gist of the word’s meaning. But toldot, from the root yalod – to give birth, evokes a deeper meaning. These are the generations, or the birthings, or the begettings – as Everett Fox has it – of Isaac and Rebecca. That broader translation reminds us of what is true for the story of every person. We do not exist in a vacuum, we all come from somewhere. Each of us was ‘begotten.’ We’ll always have parents.

Isaac was born to a father who was a trail-blazer, a successful man whose covenant with God will be carried by his family throughout all time. But that man Abraham, also traumatized his son in a way that we imagine left permanent wounds. As the blind – and perhaps clueless – elder Isaac is deceived by his wife and son, we sense echoes of a younger Isaac, the passive son in the Akedah story. He seems destined to live in the shadow of his powerful father, perhaps damaged, or at least destined to victimhood.

Rebekah, we know, has a core of kindness, but was raised in a family of greed and deception. We watch here how she manipulates her family so that Jacob, her favored son, will obtain his father’s blessing. We recoil at her strategy, and wonder if Rebekah is stuck forever in the patterns of deception and selfishness that she learned from her family of origin.

We view these characters through the lenses of their past, and we may explain their behavior by the baggage we know they carry. And yet, the lives of Rebekah and Isaac and the stark, dramatic stories of Toldot, are, like life itself, not so simple. In this Torah portion, family legacies are present, but the ambiguous storytelling of Toldot invites us to stay open to more nuanced views of Isaac and Rebekah.

Rebekah’s choice to resort to deception reflects her upbringing, but her behavior may not be motivated purely by greedy self-interest. It may express her sincere desire to carry out God’s will, as she understands it, to have Jacob surpass his brother. And, as a woman in her culture, deception may be her sole recourse to achieve her goal.

As an old man, Isaac appears to be in his familiar role as passive victim of Rebekah and Jacob. But in the scene where he blesses his sons, it is not fully clear that he is duped. Perhaps he actively makes use of his apparent passivity to uphold God’s plan. The text is ambiguous; we do not know for sure. But we do know that out in the world, Isaac is no passive victim. Prosperous and successful, he digs a number of wells in a place where water is the primary commodity. When harassed by the local Philistines, he stands up to his harassers, persists in his digging, and, symbolically, opens the wells of his father.

Are Rebekah and Isaac fully defined by the legacies of their families? Yes and no. Which brings us back to the Torah’s guiding word, toldot. Toldot is not only about what and who begets us, about the baggage we are born with. Toldot also means generations. Each of us generates something of our own. We generate our own lives. We each give birth, be it to actual children, or to other additions and contributions that we make to the world.

Isaac and Rebekah may seem imprisoned in their roles, but the Torah opens the possibility that they also define themselves in ways that resist and break away from their family legacies.

Our family stories in the book of Genesis show us how our toldot shape us, and also how we create our own toldot. What we learned in our families, and the roles that we play in them, are carried with us, and can define us, in both helpful and hurtful ways. We’ll always have parents, but each of us can choose what to keep from our family legacies, and what to leave behind or transform. One of our tasks is to keep open the wells of the generations before us, and to draw from them. We can choose to draw from our parents’ wells what will nourish us, and nourish the people in our lives.

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Rabbi Kieval serves as Rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, New York. She was ordained at AJR in 2006.