The Parsha in a Nutshell
Toldot tells the story of Yitzchak and Rebecca’s twin sons, Yaakov and Esau, who struggle in Rebecca’s womb and seem destined to clash throughout their lives and those of their descendants. It contains two great passages: the birth and childhood of the boys, and the scene in which Yaakov, as suggested by Rebecca, dresses in Esau’s clothes and takes his blessing from their father Yitzchak, who is now blind.
In between these two stories is a narrative about Yitzchak and Rebecca going to Gerar because of famine, very similar to the story told about Avraham and Sarah in chapter 20 of Genesis (Parshat Vayera).
The Core Idea
In Genesis 21 we read about an argument that arose over a well that Avraham had dug: “Then Avraham complained to Avimelekh about a well of water that Avimelekh’s servants had seized” (21:25). The two men make a treaty. Unfortunately, this was not sufficient to prevent further difficulties for his son. Yitzchak becomes rich from God’s blessings, causing envy among the Philistines. They fill the wells that Yitzchak’s father Avraham had dug, and then Avimelekh commands Yitzchak to “Move away from us; you have become too powerful for us” (26:16). Yitzchak leaves the city and camps in the Valley of Gerar, and reopens the wells that his father had dug, and renames them the same names. Two of these wells once again cause tension with the local people there in the valley who claim the water for themselves. But the third well causes no arguing, so he names it Rechovot and says “Now the Lord has given us room (from the same root as Rechovot) and we will flourish in the land.” (Gen. 26:22)
Yitzchak’s response in this story is inspiring. Defeated once, he tries again. He digs another well; this too produces opposition. So, he moves on again, and eventually creates peace. How fitting it is that the town in Israel that today carries the name of this third well, Rechovot, is a large bustling modern city. Israel Belkind, one of the founders of the settlement in 1890, called it Rechovot precisely because of the verse in our parsha: “He named it Rechovot, saying, Now the Lord has given us room and we will flourish in the land.”
Yitzchak is the least original of the three patriarchs. His life lacks the drama of Avraham or the struggles of Yaakov. We see in this passage that Yitzchak himself did not strive to be innovative, digging the same wells and naming them with the same names as his father. Often, we try to make ourselves distinctive from our parents. We do things differently, or even if we don’t, we give them different names. Yitzchak was not like this. He was content to be a link in the chain of generations, faithful to what his father had started.
Yitzchak represents the faith of persistence, the courage of continuity. He was the first Jewish child, and he represents the single greatest challenge of being a Jewish child: to continue the journey our ancestors began, rather than drifting from it. And Yitzchak, because of that faith, was able to achieve the most elusive of goals, namely peace – because he never gave up. When one effort failed, he began again. So, it is with all great achievements: one part originality, nine parts persistence.
Questions to Ponder
1. Do you feel like you want to be like your parents or different from them?
2. Is it important for you to carry on the legacy of your parents (and ancestors) who went before you?
3. Is it more heroic and courageous to blaze your own path or to continue in the path of your parents/ancestors who went before you?
It Once Happened…
“It once happened that Choni the Circle Drawer was walking along the way and he saw an old man planting a young fruit tree. Choni asked the man how long it would take until the tree would produce fruit. Seventy years,’ the old man answered him. ‘Do you really think you will be alive for another seventy years so you can enjoy the fruit from this tree?’ Choni asked the man with wonder. The man replied, ‘Just as I was born into a world with fully grown fruit trees that were planted by my ancestors, so I plant a tree for my children.’” (Ta’anit 23a)
Questions to Ponder
1. Who is the man planting the tree focused on, his ancestors before him or his descendants that will come after him? Or both?
2. What connection can you see between this story and The Core Idea above?
Thinking More Deeply
As well as the idea contained in the Core Idea above, there are two further aspects of this passage in the parsha worthy of careful attention. The first is the hint it gives us of what will later be the turning point of the fate of the Israelites in Egypt. Avimelekh says, “you have become too powerful for us.” Centuries later, Pharaoh says, at the beginning of the book of Exodus, “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are greater in number and power than we are. Come on, let us deal wisely with them… and get them out of the land” (Exodus 1:9-10). The same word, atzum, “power/powerful,” appears in both cases. Our passage signals the birth of one of the deadliest of human phenomena, antisemitism.
Antisemitism is in some respects unique. It is, in Robert Wistrich’s phrase, the world’s longest hatred. No other prejudice has lasted so long, mutated so persistently, attracted such demonic myths, or had such devastating effects. But in other respects it is not unique, and we must try to understand it as best we can.
One of the best books about antisemitism, is in fact not about antisemitism at all, but about similar phenomena in other contexts, Amy Chua’s World on Fire. Her thesis is that any conspicuously successful minority will attract envy that may deepen into hate and provoke violence. All three conditions are essential. The hated group must be conspicuous, for otherwise it would not be singled out. It must be successful, for otherwise it would not be envied. And it must be a minority, for otherwise it would not be attacked.
All three conditions were present in the case of Yitzchak. He was conspicuous: he was not a Philistine, he was different from the local population as an outsider, a stranger, someone with a different faith. He was successful: his crops had succeeded a hundredfold, his flocks and herds were large, and the people envied him. And he was a minority: a single family in the midst of the local population. All the ingredients were present for the presence of hostility and hate.
There is a second aspect of our passage that has had reverberations through the centuries: the self-destructive nature of hate. The Philistines did not ask Yitzchak to share his water with them. They did not ask him to teach them how he (and his father) had discovered a source of water that they – residents of the place – had not. They did not even simply ask him to move on. They “stopped up” the wells, “filling them with earth.” This act harmed them more than it harmed Yitzchak. It robbed them of a resource that would have become theirs, once the famine had ended and Yitzchak had returned home. More than hate destroys the hated, it destroys the hater.
But Yitzchak refused to lose the faith of persistence (see The Core Idea above). I find it moving that Yitzchak, who underwent so many trials, from the binding when he was young, to the rivalry between his sons when he was old and blind, carries a name that means, “He will laugh.” Perhaps the name – given to him by God Himself before Yitzchak was born – means what the psalm means when it says, “Those who sow in tears will reap with joy” (Psalms 126:5). Faith means the courage to persist through all the setbacks, all the grief, never giving up, never accepting defeat. For at the end, despite the opposition, the envy and the hate, lie the broad spaces, Rechovot, and the laughter, Yitzchak: the serenity of the destination after the storms along the way.
From the Thought of Rabbi Sacks
Historically, antisemitism has been hard to define, because it expresses itself in such contradictory ways. Before the Holocaust, Jews were hated because they were poor and because they were rich; because they were communists and because they were capitalists; because they kept to themselves and because they infiltrated everywhere; because they clung to ancient religious beliefs and because they were rootless cosmopolitans who believed nothing.
So what is antisemitism? Let’s be clear – not liking people because they’re different isn’t antisemitism. It’s xenophobia. Criticising Israel isn’t antisemitism: it’s part of the democratic process, and Israel is a democracy. Antisemitism is something much more dangerous – it means persecuting Jews and denying them the right to exist collectively as Jews with the same rights as everyone else.
It’s a prejudice that like a virus, has survived over time by mutating. So in the Middle Ages, Jews were persecuted because of their religion. In the 19th and 20th centuries they were reviled because of their race. Today, Jews are attacked because of the existence of their nation state, Israel. Denying Israel’s right to exist is the new antisemitism.
And just as antisemitism has mutated, so has its legitimisation. Each time, as the persecution descended into barbarity, the persecutors reached for the highest form of justification available. In the Middle Ages, it was religion. In post-Enlightenment Europe it was science: the so-called scientific study of race. Today it is human rights. Whenever you hear human rights invoked to deny Israel’s right to exist, you are hearing the new antisemitism…
Antisemitism is about the inability of a group to make space for difference. And because we are all different, the hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews… Antisemitism is the world’s most reliable early warning sign of a major threat to freedom, humanity and the dignity of difference. It matters to all of us. Which is why we must fight it together.The Mutation of Antisemitism (whiteboard animation video)
Questions to Ponder
1. Is there still significant antisemitism in the world today or do you believe the days of antisemitism are over in our post-Holocaust world?
2. Can you envision a time when there will be no more antisemitism (or other prejudice and hatreds) in the world?
Around the Shabbat Table
- Is there a middle child in your family? What challenges do you think a middle child has to face in the family dynamic? Do you think Yitzchak felt like a middle child?
- Do you think persistence and continuity can be described as heroic and courageous?
- Is it more heroic and courageous to blaze your own path or to continue in the path of your parents/ancestors who went before you?
The Core Idea
- It is natural for every child to answer yes to both and feel some tension between the two. While it is a natural and an important part of growing up for adolescents to want to rebel and challenge the conventions of the upbringing they experience in their parents’ home, and forge a different path, it is equally normal for them to want to be like their parents. Challenge your child/student to connect to both ideas from a personal vantage point.
- This concept is a core value of Judaism, and is one of the explanations for the miraculous history of Jewish continuity against all the odds. However, that is not to say that this is obvious for an adolescent and an easy value to connect to, especially as it demands sacrifice and difficult life choices. Challenge your child/student to evaluate this value and to connect to it on a personal level.
- Both paths can be seen as heroic and courageous, and while it is easier to relate to the trail-blazer as courageous, Rabbi Sacks gives Yitzchak and the child who chooses to continue the legacy of his/her parents/ancestors dignity and worth. Try to do the same in your discussion on this point.
It Once Happened…
- There is a dual focus here. The man is clearly concerned with the world his descendants will inherit and therefore, despite his old age and the unlikelihood he will benefit from the fruits of his labour, he still strives to improve the world for them by planting a carob tree. However, he also displays an awareness of, and gratitude for, his ancestors who did the same for their world and therefore for his. The story presents both the value of concern and responsibility for future generations, as well as the value and responsibility to continue the legacy of previous generations.
- These values, responsibility for future generations and for the continuation of the legacy of previous generations, can be seen in the way that Rabbi Sacks explores Yitzchak’s character and life story. He could be seen as someone who lived the same life as his father without achieving anything significant himself. But Rabbi Sacks sees him as a someone who continues his father’s legacy in order to be a link in the chain without which future generations would not exist.
From the Thought of Rabbi Sacks
- Sadly, reported incidents of antisemitism are on the rise the world over, especially in Europe and the United States. While previous generations have believed that we live in a (post-Holocaust) world where antisemitism and even racism can no longer exist, it is hard to imagine anyone feeling that way today.
- Obviously there are no wrong answers to this question. Jews believe that one day the world will live in a redeemed state where there will no longer be conflict or hatred (messianic times). The question is whether it is mankind’s responsibility to bring this about (and with it the messianic time period) or whether this redemption will be divinely orchestrated. Either way, it is an act of faith to believe this will happen one day, and this is something to explore with your child/student – what do they believe is the destiny of humanity?
Around the Shabbat Table
- Middle child syndrome is when middle children feel excluded, ignored, or even neglected because of their birth order A middle child will sometimes feel unloved or unnoticed, as they are forced to compete with both the oldest and youngest child. The oldest child is seen as more mature and closer to an adult, and often given extra responsibilities and privileges. The youngest child is often over-protected and indulged as the baby, the status that the middle child loses with their birth. Yitzchak had to follow in the footsteps of his great father, the progenitor of our nation, the iconoclast, who trail-blazed a new path in the world. It is easy to imagine this must have defined his life and life-choices. Yaakov perhaps felt less pressure being one generation removed, felt freer to make his own way in the world, and did just that. Although Yitzchak had no way to know the impact Yaakov would make, for us, we see Yitzchak as the middle of our three patriarchs, with the challenge that presents. Ask your child/students to try and relate to the middle child in their family and Yitzchak who faced the same challenges.
- There is a dignity and perhaps courage in continuing a legacy. This Covenant & Conversation extends that to Yitzchak, and in your discussion you can find other examples from life to do the same.
- This is an open question with no incorrect answers. There is courage in both, and it is important to extend the same dignity and value to someone who chooses to continue in the path pf previous generations (a Jewish core value modelled by Yitzchak) as well as those who blaze their own trail even in opposition to the generally accepted norms of society (as modelled by Avraham).
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.