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Parashat Toledot 5779 — 11/10/2018

Parashat Toledot 5779 — 11/10/2018

Bereishit 25:19-28:9

In many ways Yitzchak is a transitional figure, who receives the torch from his father and has to pass it on to his son, or one of his sons. The question is, how can one be true to a tradition and yet be an individual? Does Gd want us to change what we receive, or pass it on just as we have received it? Is the latter even a possibility?

R. Goldin looks at the issue of passing on the tradition in the context of Yitzchak’s individuation:

Yitzchak is the first Hebrew child. He is, therefore, the first individual within our history to face the challenge of preserving the Mesora (Jewish tradition). This challenge begins with the two steps of receiving and transmitting.
Yitzchak, unlike Avraham, receives his divine instruction not only from Gd, but from his parents. He must respect and absorb what his parents teach, often a considerable challenge. …
Upon receiving the tradition from his parents, the second patriarch must also successfully transmit that tradition to the next generation. Much of Yitzchak’s story centers on this particular task as he makes the difficult journey, with the help of his wife, Rivka, towards understanding the true nature of his two children, Ya’akov and Esav, and the legacy appropriate for each.
We often make the mistake, however, of defining Mesora simply in terms of the receipt and transmission of tradition. There is a pivotal additional step that must take place. To fully participate in the process of Mesora, an individual must receive tradition, make it his or her own, and then pass it down to the next generation.

What does it mean to “make [the Mesora] one’s own”? And how do we make sure that when we make the Mesora our own, that we don’t distort it?

Let’s consider the second question first. Distortion in this area is potentially disastrous. We are all familiar with the game of “telephone.” A secret is told to the first person. The first person whispers it to the second person, who whispers it to the third, and on down the line. The last person writes down what he heard, and the first person writes down what he heard, and they compare. The results are often very funny, prompting a “where did you get that from” reaction all down the line. Of course if the message from the general at HQ was “Retreat and regroup” and it reaches the commander in the field as “Charge!” then the results will not be very funny at all.

When it comes to a tradition of spiritual development, even the slightest deviations can be equally disastrous. After all, if we are trying to hit a target that is very far away, a slight deviation in launch angle can mean a miss of many miles, and in this case we are trying to come close to Gd, Who is above all the heavens. In this case, passing on traditional techniques of spiritual development must be done in complete purity, to safeguard the effectiveness of the techniques.

On the level of intellectual understanding, the situation may be different. Every person is different, every generation is different. Everyone comes into this world with his or her own challenges and perspectives. Each individual’s experiences give them a unique view of the universe. Therefore, each person has to be taught differently, and each person will teach others differently. Perhaps this is why the Torah ideal is for parents to pass the tradition on to their own children – since they are all genetically related and share a similar environment within the family, the transmission is easier and there is bound to be less distortion of knowledge from generation to generation. The downside of that system is that the parents, occupied as they are with making a living and keeping the household in order, may not have the time or the inclination to delve deeply into the tradition, and may not be skilled in imparting it to their children. This is the origin of the professional teacher, but it is also the origin of that one professional teacher’s teaching many diverse students. Customization naturally suffers.

There are two major schools of thought in the Talmud: the Academy of Hillel and the Academy of Shammai. Interestingly, the Talmud states that there were never any disagreements over points of the Oral Law until the times of Hillel and Shammai, and that the reason that disagreements arose at this time was that the students didn’t serve their teachers properly. No mention is made of studying or learning. It is all about behavior.

Why do we need to serve our teachers? I think the idea is this. Torah is not like other disciplines. When I taught physics, what I taught pretty much stayed in the classroom – it was generally not something the students would readily apply to their daily life, and it certainly didn’t impact their moral choices. Torah, on the other hand, is all-encompassing. The ideal is for us to be Torah, to be connected with Gd through doing His Will, to put our mind in tune with Gd’s Mind. The way we do that is by putting our mind in tune with the teacher’s mind, and the way we do that is not primarily through academic study, but by closely observing the teacher’s behavior and adjusting our own behavior and thinking based on the teacher’s example and instructions, until we are no longer making mistakes.

All this is of course predicated on the idea that the teacher has already made the Torah his own, that his mind is in tune with Gd’s Mind! Only then can he both provide a suitable model for the student and instruct the student in the procedures by which he can refine his consciousness and behavior. Then both the teacher and the student can take the Torah, take the tradition, and truly make it their own. And one can only pass on something that is one’s own possession.


Immediately after I finished this, I got the following drash in the email. It’s from R. Yissochar Frand, a renowned speaker and teacher:

Descendants Who Will Be Like the Stars – Each One Unique

At the beginning of Bereshis Chapter 15, the Torah says: “After these events, the word of Hashem came to Avram in a vision, saying ‘Fear not, Avram, I am a shield for you; your reward is very great.’ And Avram said ‘My Lrd, Hashem/Elokim: What can You give me being that I go childless, and the steward of my house is Eliezer from Damascus?’ Then Avram said, ‘See to me You have given no offspring and see, my steward inherits me…’ Suddenly the word of Hashem came to him, saying ‘That one will not inherit you; only the one who shall come forth from within you shall inherit you.’ And He took him outside and said, ‘Gaze, now, towards the Heavens, and count the stars if you are able to count them!’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be!’” [Bereshis 15:1-5]

The Gemara [Yoma 28b] has an interesting homiletic teaching based on the expression “Eliezer of Damascus.” The Gemara interprets the Hebrew word for Damascus (DaMeSeK) as an acronym for Doleh uMaShKeh m’Toras Rabbo l’acherim (he draws out water and gives drink [i.e. he would learn and teach] from the Torah of his master [i.e. Avram] to others).

Eliezer was a faithful disciple of the Patriarch Avraham who said over for others the teachings and practices of his teacher. He was not just a porter. He was Avram’s publicist and right hand man, a stand-in for the teacher!

If that is the case, the above quoted pasuk seems strange. Avram asks desperately “What is going to become of me? I have no heir only the steward of my house who will (apparently) inherit me.” Then he throws in “He is Eliezer of Damascus” which the Talmud interprets homiletically as if to say “He knows every piece of Torah that I ever said; he transmits it faithfully to others; he is my personal stand-in.” How does that fit in with Avram’s desperate plea for an heir?

The Rabbeinu Bechaya on the pasuk “Gaze now toward the Heavens and count the stars… so shall your offspring be.” says a beautiful idea. He writes that just as every star is unique in color and shape, so too will be the case with the Sages of Israel. They will be individuals, not clones of one another. They will each be unique in spirituality and unique in terms of their insight. The Sages of Israel, writes Rabbeinu Bechaya are not going to be monolithic. They are not going to have all the same ideas and all the same components of wisdom.

The Chozeh (Seer) of Lublin said, that now we can understand what Avraham Avinu meant. Avraham said, I have no children, I have only Eliezer. Eliezer knows my Torah, but he is merely a parrot. He is just a clone of me. I do not want that from my descendants. I want my descendants to be different, to add something. I want each one to be an individual. I do not want a “one size fits all” Yiddishkeit. There need to be “different strokes for different folks” – just as no two faces are exactly alike so too no two opinions are exactly alike.

Yes, Eliezer knows all my Torah, but that is not what I am seeking. If I am going to build a Nation, I need offspring that will be more than just exact replicas of their ancestor. When Yitzchak was born, his mode of Service to the Almighty was totally different from that of his father. Avraham’s approach was Chessed [Outward directed Kindness]; Yitzchak’s approach was Gevurah [Inner directed Strength]. When Yaakov Avinu was born, he too was totally different and each of his twelve sons had their own unique path and method of Divine Service. We have 12 windows in our synagogues – representing these 12 approaches to Judaism, represented by the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

This was Avraham’s request when he complained that he did not have an heir – only Eliezer of Damascus. He wanted diversity among his offspring, not just clones. To that, Hashem responded, “Go outside and look at the stars. Thus will your offspring be.” Do not worry. You will have children and they will be different from one another. Oh, will they be different! You will have Gedolei Yisrael [great men of Israel] who will have differing opinions. This one will stress this aspect and this one will stress that aspect. Do not worry, Avraham, you will have descendants whose differences will span as broad a spectrum as the light of the stars.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Toldot
“Toldot” means “generations, descendants.”  The parshah begins with “and these are the generations of Isaac” and tells the story of Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau from whom generations will be born, and of Gd’s promise to Isaac that if Isaac will follow Gd, as did Isaac’s father Abraham, then his descendants will be multiplied “like the stars of the heavens” and the land and all nations will be blessed by Isaac’s descendants.

On the surface of this parshah, we see competition, deception, favoritism: Isaac and Rebecca do not seem to have been good parents, skilled and effective in raising two sons to be whole, complete.

It’s common to say that Esau, “a man of the fields”, symbolizes the outer field of life, the physical, while Jacob, “a quiet person, sitting in tents”, symbolizes the inner field of life, the spiritual.

Often people see a battle taking place between these two people and these two aspects of life, but life, to be Life, needs to have both physical and spiritual and they need to be integrated.

A great blessing came to me in understanding a step in how this integration takes place when I heard Dr. Doug Birx, well-known to many in our congregation, giving a quote from Maharishi, also well-known to many in our congregation.
Maharishi commented that Ananda, Total Joy, is everyone’s birthright.

Looking at the story of Jacob asking Esau to sell him his birthright for some porridge he was making, it occurred to me that Jacob, symbolizing the Spiritual aspect of Life, was asking Esau, symbolizing the Physical aspect of Life, to end his famished state by surrendering his commitment to the Physical Alone, and opening himself to the spiritual porridge Jacob was cooking.

Porridge seems to have a bubbly quality to it and cooking it seemed to me to be equivalent to revealing that Ananda/Joy/Consciousness/Unified Field/Gd, has a texture: it is not just flat, it has a bubbly quality.

So rather than Jacob’s cheating Esau, acting cruelly, Jacob was actually enlivening the Joy in Esau, ending his famishment, by taking from him his false birthright in the Physical, and giving him his real birthright, in Ananda, Gd.
And for us this parshah reminds us that we need to live balanced lives in which material and spiritual aspects are integrated so that Full Awareness, Ananda, Gd is revealed as our Nature, our birthright.

Baruch HaShem