The Stories Before Our Story

November 17th: Toldot
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Translation is always an interesting proposition. Just put four or five different translations of the Bible side by side, and you’ll see the curious variations of the traditional text—all of which are correct! For example, Genesis 1:1 can be rendered “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,” or “When God began to create the heaven and the earth.” Both are accurate translations, but the difference in philosophical or spiritual implications can be excellent fodder for discussion.  

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, the translation question comes up immediately. The opening words are “V’eleh tol’dot Yitzchak ben Avraham,” and the traditional English translation, going back to the King James translation of  1611, is “And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son.” This is literally accurate. Eleh means these, and toldot means generations, but is this what the ancients really meant? What follows this introduction is not  a genealogy but rather the story of Isaac’s family. Thus do more modern translators, beginning with the 1962 Jewish Publication Society edition, render it, “This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham.”

Of course, the story is not actually the story of Isaac so much as the story of Isaac’s son, Jacob. We start with Isaac and Rebekah and their hope for a child. We continue with the birth of the twins, Jacob and Esau, but everyone else is pretty much a co-star. Jacob has the leading role for the next twelve chapters. (This changes in Genesis 37 when we have “Eleh toldot Ya’akov / These are the generations of Jacob”—which is really the story of Joseph!)

The spiritual point here is that the story of Jacob begins with the words, “This is the story of Isaac.”  Jacob’s origins and connection to the previous generation are thus declared, and a lesson for the nature of individual human identity is thus presented. We are who we are not only because of our own human uniqueness; we are influenced by and are the continuation of those who came before us.

This essential Jewish teaching—and human truth—was brought to mind this last week at the funeral of a long-time member, Henry Hoffman. His two sons spoke at the funeral, and both Ed and Bennett began their reminiscences of their father with memories of other elders who had passed on. Some were members of the family. Others were part of their social circle. All were role models, and the connection was that their beloved father was part of a tradition of caring and responsibility and righteousness. Hank clearly made his own unique contributions to the ongoing lessons of the generations, but it was deeply beautiful to see the context in which Hank’s sons saw their father’s life. He was part of a tradition of menschlichkeit, and he did that tradition proud.

Think about the people who influenced you—who taught you how to be a mensch. There were parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts. There were cousins and neighbors and family friends. There were teachers and rabbis and scout leaders and coaches. Some were better than others, and some, frankly, might have provided examples of how not to behave. However, when we reflect upon the internal voices that remind us of what we should be—noble, responsible, good, compassionate, honest, persistent, patient, appreciative, and reverent, it is profoundly appropriate to realize the chain of tradition that brings these values to us.

When we speak of the line of our tradition, we begin with and mention by name Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel and Leah, but the spirit of the text is that this noble and ancient line continues in each and every generation. Just as they are our past, so are we their future. Ours is an historic tradition, and the tug of tradition calls on us to live up to the holy aspirations of our ancient and continuing tradition.

The modern Jewish composer Doug Cotler expressed this sense of continuity in his song, Standing on the Shoulders:

“In the garden there’s a tree
Planted by someone who only imagined me.
What love! What vision!
I marvel at the gift, no fruit could be sweeter than this.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.

 As my people went from land to land,
Something passed from hand to hand.
And it isn’t just the words and stories
Of the ancient laws and golden glories.
It’s the way we study the Book we study.
It’s the way we study the way.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.

Today my life is full of choice
Because a young man raised his voice,
Because a young girl took a chance.
I am freedom’s inheritance.
Years ago they crossed the sea
And they made a life that’s come to me.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.

So in the garden, I’ll plant a seed,
A tree of life for you to read.
The fruit will ripen in the sun.
The words will sound when I am gone.
These are the things I pass along:
The fruit, the Book, and the song.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.”