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Our Parsha begins in a very strange way: Ve’eleh toldot Yitzchak ben-Avraham, “these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham”. Now after that, you’d expect to hear about his legacy, his children, but you don’t. Avraham holid et-Yitzchak, “Abraham gave birth to Isaac”, those are not the generations of Isaac, that’s not what Isaac gave birth to; that’s Isaac’s father. The truth is, the issue of what eleh toldot turns out to mean is a pervasive question throughout the Book of Genesis. Because, throughout the Book, there is all these sections, they are introduced with those words. Almost invariably, what comes next is not what you would expect, it’s not the generations of. In the beginning of Vayeshav we have the same problem. These are the generations of Jacob, eleh toldot Yaakov Yosef ben sheva esreh shanah, “Joseph when he was seventeen years old,” and then we launched into the story of Joseph. What happened to everybody else? The rest of the Twelve Tribes don’t get mentioned at all. It’s like does the Torah not understands what the words mean?
I want to suggest to you that the Torah understands exactly what the words means, and the fact that every time we’re supposed to hear a list of generations we don’t really get an accurate list. The Torah is telling you that the legacy of X is not what you might think at first glance, and to begin to get a sense of how these works, I want to bring you back to the very first of these eleh toldot sections.
Eleh toldot hashamayim v’haaretz behibaream, “These are the generations of heaven and earth as they were being created.” That’s a strange thing to say. Heaven and earth are inanimate objects; what could they give birth to? It sounds just crazy. Well maybe that’s the whole point. Heaven and earth, as unimaginable as it might seem, do have a legacy. Everything you are about to hear in this creation story, is going to be told to you from the perspective of heaven and earth actually being parents; everything comes from them. Think about it this way. If you think about heaven and earth as parents, when did heaven and earth becomes ‘fertile’, so to speak? Through rain. Listen to the very next words.
In the beginning was barren, vechol siach hasadeh terem yiyeh vaaretz, “there was no vegetation in the land”, vechol-esev hasadeh terem yitzmach, “and all the grasses are not yet grown.” Why? Ki lo himetir Hashem Elokim al-ha’aretz, “Because there was not yet rain”, the beginning of fertility. V’adam ein la’avod et-ha’adamah, “there wasn’t man yet”, who could then cultivate things further, to take wild vegetation and cultivate it through his agricultural prowess. What it’s actually describing is a barren world where anything hadn’t happened yet. What redeems that barrenness? Ve’ed ya’aleh min-ha’aretz, “Mist rose up from the ground”; the beginning of water, rising from the earth to seed the clouds. Vehishkah et-kol-penei ha’adamah, “and rain came down to water the face of the earth”. The beginning of life. Heaven and earth are now fertile; they can now produce. And in that world, vayitzer Hashem Elokim et-ha’adam afar min-ha’adamah, “God created man”. He was able to create man because it was not just the particles of dust; there was this clay, this newly fertile earth, God used that earth to make man.
Everything that happens now, is going to be a function of what the earth’s legacy is. The earth’s prodigy. God is going to cause to come out of the ground kol-etz nechmad, “there will be trees”, even before man learned how to cultivate vegetation with the agricultural revolution, there was a first gardener – God. Vayita Hashem Elokim gan-be’Eden, “God planted a cultivated garden for himself, establishing for man how it would be done”. And then the four rivers – who cares about these four rivers? They bring water over here, and water over there to the four corners of the earth, why do I need all of this? But it makes perfect sense. It’s the beginning of bringing life to the world, in as much as water is the key element that is responsible for all life in a world in which heaven and earth are parents. The Torah is explaining to you how life spread out from one place to cover the entire globe; it was through the rivers.
And then, more progeny of heaven and earth. Vayitzer Hashem Elokim min-ha’adamah kol-chayat hasadeh, “God formed out of the ground all of the living creatures“, and then the ground and heavens had grandchildren, many grandchildren; man as the first generation descendants, women taken from man build out of his ribs becomes their grandchild – second generation descendants. There is a legacy to heaven and earth; the rest of creation is their legacy. Let’s move on to the next eleh toldot of the Torah. The one that talks about Noah; also puzzling.
Eleh toldot Noach, “These are the generations of Noah”, so I’d expect to hear about his kids, but the first thing I hear about is him. Noach ish tzaddik tamim hayah bedorotav, “Noah was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generation, he walked with God”. Why am I hearing about this? Tell me about his kids. That’s what I get in the next sentence. Noah had three kids; start with that. Maybe what the Torah is telling you is that the main thing that Noah produced was Noah himself.
Eleh toldot Noach, “These are the generations of Noah”. Noah! He produced himself. How? Ish tzaddik hayah bedorotav, “because he is righteous”, he went against the flow. When you live in a world that’s intensely evil, you live in a world where basically everyone is passive goes with the flow of the evil around them, until someone stands up for what’s right, and when they do, they are the most self-made man you could imagine. And perhaps that gives us an insight into what he was saved.
There was a decree in the flood that the last eleh toldot section of the Torah, the hamayim va’aretz, “the children of heaven and earth”, they would all go. The flood was not just about the destruction of mankind, it was about the destruction of the earth; about everything that heaven and earth had created. Listen to the words of the Torah, vatishachet ha’aretz lifnei ha’Elokim, “the world became corrupted before God”, vatimale ha’aretz chamas, “the world became filled with evil”, vayar Elokim et-ha’aretz, “God looked at earth”, vehineh nishchatah, “and in fact it was destroyed”. The decree a destruction was against the word, mankind was ancillary, he was because there was nowhere else to live; except for the one person who set himself apart; who yes, biologically, was a child of heaven and earth like the rest of them, but was also the self-made righteous man and in that merit, survived.
So what are toldots? Yes they can be biological generations, but usually they are more than that. There is legacy. What’s your real legacy? And now let’s come to the next eleh toldot section of the Torah, our parsha.
Ve’eleh toldot Yitzchak. I want to suggest that our eleh toldot is a direct inverse of Noah’s. These are the generations of Isaac. What was Isaac’s life about? What was his legacy? Among all the forefathers, the one we know the least about is Isaac. We know almost nothing about him. The biggest thing that happened to him, is what happen to him when he is object, when he almost get sacrificed on the altar, and he is passive; he just let Abraham do with him what he will? Who is this man? The clue lies in a part of an oft overlooked part of our Parsha; seemingly trivial stories about wells.
Isaac dug these well, he dug that well and the Philistines, they stopped up the wells of his father Abraham, so Isaac had done re-digging the wells and they stopped them again, and so Isaac re-dug them again. Why do we have to hear about all of that? All of that is the point. What is the challenge of a child of a great innovator? Often, to carry the innovation to the next generation. Great business men who build companies often it’s destroyed when the transition to power happens for the next generation. Can the child hold it together?
You know, George Washington was great, but if George Washington wasn’t followed by Adams, and Jefferson and Maddison, there would be no United States. Someone had to pick up the torch. Isaac is about picking up the torch, about consolidating Abraham’s legacy, about re-digging the wells to keep his father’s vision alive one more generation. If he can do that, the vision is real, it has roots; it will survive. Ve’eleh toldot Yitzchak ben-Avraham, “these are the children of Isaac.” Avraham holid et-Yitzchak, “Abraham gave birth to Isaac.” It’s as if Isaac’s greatest legacy is that he himself is the child of Abraham.
Sometimes your job in life is to innovate, sometimes your job in life is to consolidate. Consolidating isn’t as flashy as innovating; it takes great humiliating to focus your life on striking roots for a great idea that has been innovated by someone else. But that humility is heroic, and that perhaps was the legacy of Isaac.
1. Bereishit: Thank You, God...For Not Making Me A Woman?
2. Noach: Why Aren't Dinosaurs In the Torah?
3. Lech Lecha: The Battle For Abraham's Legacy
4. Vayeira: Abram, Sarai, Hagar, Ishmael and...Exodus?
5. Vayeira: Epilogue
6. Chayei Sarah: Eliezer and Samuel's Surprising Connection
7. Toldot: What Is Isaac's Legacy?
8. Vayeitzei: Understanding Rachel's World
9. Vayishlach: From Jacob to Israel
10. Vayeishev: Does God Speak To Us Today?
11. Miketz: Reversing the Sale of Joseph
12. Vayigash: Understanding Pharaoh's Dream
13. Shmot: Does God Really "Love" Us?
14. Va'era: Seeing God in Science
15. Bo: God's Justice In Action
16. Beshalach: Fruit Trees In the Sea?
17. Beshalach: Epilogue
18. Yitro: Seeing Ten Commandments in the Burning Bush
19. Mishpatim: Does Our History Become Laws?
20. Mishpatim: Epilogue
21. Terumah: Angels In the Tabernacle? Part I/2
22. Tetzaveh: Angels In the Tabernacle?- Part 2/2
23. Ki Tisa: A Closer Look At Kiddush
24. Vayakhel-Pekudei: God In Space, God In Time
25. Vayikra: How Can We Relate To Sacrifices Today?
26. Tzav: A Deeper Look At The Priestly Role
27. Tzav: Epilogue
28. Shemini: What Does Aaron Teach Us About Loss?
29. Tazria-Metzora: Rejoining the Community
30. Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Social Justice...and Sacrifices?
31. Emor: An Epic View of Jewish Holidays
32. Behar-Bechukotai: Walking With God
33. Bamidbar: Why We Count
34. Beha'alotecha: Where It All Went Wrong
35. Shelach: How Can We Relate To Such a Vengeful God?
36. Korach: Why Did Korach Rebel?
37. Chukat: Why Did Moses Hit The Rock?
38. Balak: What Is Israel's Purpose In The World?
39. Pinchas: What Is True Leadership?
40. Matot-Masei: The Art of Negotiation
41. Devarim: What Did Moses Do Wrong?- Part 1/2
42. Va'etchanan: What Did Moses Do Wrong?- Part 2/2
43. Eikev: Why Does The Nation Of Israel Merit The Land?
44. Re'eh: Why Do We Need Both Oral and Written Law?
45. Shoftim: The Significance of Saving Private Ryan
46. Ki Teitzei: How To Merit Long Life
47. Ki Tavo: The Pursuit of Happiness- Part 1
48. Nitzavim: The Pursuit of Happiness- Part 2/2
49. Vayeilech: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 1/3
50. Ha'azinu: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 2/3
51. V'Zot Habracha: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 3/3
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