The Child Of Isaac Is… Abraham??
Isaac's Family Tree And The Legacy Of Abraham
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
At the opening of Parshat Toldot, the Torah uses a bizarre turn of phrase: “And these are the offspring of Isaac, the son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac.” What?? That’s not the generations of Isaac!
So what do we do when we encounter a verse in the Torah which seems to belie logic – and grammar to boot? Do we put our heads down and keep reading? Not at Aleph Beta.
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he digs deep and searches throughout the Torah to uncover what this phrase “These are the offspring of” (in Hebrew: “Eleh toldot”) really means – and what it teaches us about the legacy of our forefather Isaac.
The Story of Isaac, the Son of Abraham
Our Parsha begins in a very strange way: וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֥ת יִצְחָ֖ק בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֑ם, "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. אַבְרָהָ֖ם הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת־יִצְחָֽק, Abraham gave birth to Yitzchak.
Those aren’t the generations of Yitzchak. That's not who Yitzchak gave birth to; that's Isaac's father. The truth is, the issue of what אֵ֣לֶּה תֹּֽלְד֣וֹת means is a pervasive question throughout the Book of Genesis. Because, throughout the book, there are all these sections that are introduced with those words. Almost invariably what comes next is not what you would expect. It's not “the generations of.”
Like in the beginning of וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב, we have the same problem. אֵ֣לֶּה תֹּֽלְד֣וֹת יַֽעֲקֹ֗ב יוֹסֵ֞ף בֶּן־שְׁבַע־עֶשְׂרֵ֤ה שָׁנָה֙ "These are the generations of Yaakov. Yosef, when he was seventeen years old..." And then we launch into the story of Yosef. What happened to everybody else? The rest of the 12 Tribes don't get mentioned at all. It's like, does the Torah not understand what the words mean?
So, I want to suggest to you that the Torah understands exactly what the words mean, 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 this might work, I want to bring you back to the very first of these אֵ֣לֶּה תֹּֽלְד֣וֹת sections.
אֵ֣לֶּה תֽוֹלְד֧וֹת הַשָּׁמַ֛יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ בְּהִ֣בָּֽרְאָ֑ם "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 become fertile, so to speak? Through rain. Listen to the very next words. In the beginning, it was barren. וְכֹ֣ל שִׂ֣יחַ הַשָּׂדֶ֗ה טֶ֚רֶם יִֽהְיֶ֣ה בָאָ֔רֶץ "There was no vegetation in the land..." וְכָל־עֵ֥שֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה טֶ֣רֶם יִצְמָ֑ח "...and all the grasses were not yet grown." Why? כִּי֩ לֹ֨א הִמְטִ֜יר יְהֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹהִים֙ עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ "...because there was not yet rain," the beginning of fertility. וְאָדָ֣ם אַ֔יִן לַֽעֲבֹ֖ד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה "There wasn't man yet, who could then cultivate things further."
What's the Torah describing? A barren world where everything hadn't happened yet. What redeems that barrenness? וְאֵ֖ד יַֽעֲלֶ֣ה מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ "Mist rose up from the ground..."; the beginning of water arising from the earth to seed the clouds. וְהִשְׁקָ֖ה אֶת־כָּל־פְּנֵ֥י הָֽאֲדָמָֽה "...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, וַיִּ֩יצֶר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה "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 progeny. God is going to cause to come out of the ground כָּל־עֵ֛ץ נֶחְמָ֥ד
There will be trees. Even before man learned how to cultivate vegetation with the agricultural revolution, there was a first gardener – God. וַיִּטַּ֞ע יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהִ֛ים גַּן־בְּעֵ֖דֶן "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 bring 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. וַיִּ֩צֶר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה כָּל־חַיַּ֤ת הַשָּׂדֶה֙ "God formed out of the ground all of the living creatures." And then the ground and heavens had grandchildren. Man as the first generation descendant. Woman taken from man, built out of his rib, becomes their grandchild, the second generation descendant. There is a legacy to heaven and earth; the rest of creation is their legacy.
Let's move on to the next אֵ֣לֶּה תֹּֽלְד֣וֹת section of the Torah. The one that talks about Noach; also puzzling. אֵ֚לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ "These are the generations of Noah." So I'd expect to hear about his kids, but the first thing I hear about is him. נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו "Noach 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. Noach had three kids. Start with that. Maybe what the Torah is telling you is that the main thing that Noach produced was Noach himself.
אֵ֚לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ "These are the generations of Noach. Noach!" He produced himself. How? אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו Because "he is righteous." He went against the flow. When you live in a world that's intensely evil, you live in a world in which basically everyone is passive and 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 a bit of an insight into why he was saved.
There was a decree in the flood that the last אֵ֚לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת section of the Torah, the שָּׁמַ֛יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ, 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, וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים "The world became corrupted before God," וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס: "The world became filled with evil, וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ "God looked at earth," וְהִנֵּ֣ה נִשְׁחָ֑תָה "And, in fact, it was destroyed." The decree of destruction was against the world. Mankind was ancillary. He was destroyed 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 toldot? Yes, they can be biological generations, but usually they are more than that. There is legacy. What's your real legacy?
The Legacy of Isaac's Family Tree
And now let's come to the next אֵ֚לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת section of the Torah, our parsha. וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֥ת . יִצְחָ֖קI want to suggest that our אֵ֚לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת is a direct inverse of Noah's. “These are the generations of Yitzchak.” What was Yitzchak'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 happens to him when he is an object, when he almost gets sacrificed on the altar, and he is passive; he just lets Abraham do with him what he will. Who is this man?
The clue lies in an oft overlooked part of our Parsha, seemingly trivial stories about wells. Isaac dug these wells. He dug that well. And the Philistines, they stopped up the wells of his father, Abraham, so Isaac kept on re-digging the wells, and they stopped them up some more, 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 businessmen who build companies — often it's destroyed when the transition to power happens in the next generation. Can the child hold it together?
You know, George Washington was great, but if George Washington wasn't followed by Adams, by Jefferson and Madison, 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. וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֥ת יִצְחָ֖ק בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֑ם "These are the children of Yitzchak." אַבְרָהָ֖ם הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת־יִצְחָֽק "Abraham gave birth to Yitzchak." It's as if Yitzchak'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 humility 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.