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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Aleh Toldot Yitzhak Now the Jewish story begins #Torah

Posted by rabbiart on November 18, 2009

Torah students everywhere know that (how many? can you name them?) a small handful of parshiot are named after individuals. Last Shabbat was one of these – chayei Sarah. This week we read toldot. It opens with these words –  וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק    – but it quickly moves on to the story of Jacob and Esau.  Yitzhak gets almost no respect.  Pinchas gets a parshah named for him, Balak gets a parshah named for him. Even Korach gets a parshah named for him?Why not Yitzhak? About all we can say is that neither his  famous father nor his famous son get a parshah name. Given he seems to be a pale shadow of either one, it doesn’t seem that unfair. Who is Yitzhak and what is his role in the founding of our people?  It is in his generation that the uniquely Jewish story begins to unfold


Yitzhak and Yishma’el are both on the receiving end of some brutal treatment by their father, and they go their separate ways.  The half-brothers are joined together  again only when they reunite to bury him in the double cave of Machpelah, and the text is at pains to mention that they are – still – the sons of Abraham.

וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֹתוֹ יִצְחָק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל, בָּנָיו, אֶל-מְעָרַת, הַמַּכְפֵּלָה

Yitzhak and Yishma’el, his sons, buried him in the cave of Machpelah

Immediately afterward, the Torah gives us a geneology of Yishmael, followed by its resumption of Yitzhak’s story.  Unless we believe that the Torah thinks we don’t know who these men are, it is clear that they are specifically associated with their father Abraham in order to teach us something. In verse 12 we read  וְאֵלֶּה תֹּלְדֹת יִשְׁמָעֵאל, בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם  (these are the generations of Yishma’el, son of Avraham) and in verse 19 we read וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם   (these are the generations of Yitzhak, son of Avraham).

The brothers are equal in relationship to their father, but not equal in their treatment by the text, for in verse 11 we read that – after Avraham’s death- HaShem blessed Yitzhak his son. Nothing is said about blessings for Yishma’el.

Until the opening of our parshah (or, if you prefer, the last aliyah of chayei Sarah), the Torah’s story is “universal”.  Everyone is still part of the same family, even if only at funerals. We probably all know families like this; estranged but not separated, meeting at funerals and saying “we should be together in happier times.” But sadly, never carrying through this vague thought, or perhaps never meaning it at all; merely finding something to say at an awkward moment.

From this point forward in the Torah, the line of Yishma’el is a story that can only be separately told, because this is now “the story of Yitzhak”.  One brother is in, and one brother is out.

As if to be sure we understand what is happening, the Torah moves in the short space of a single aliyah (full reading version) to the next pair of brothers who will separate. The quarrel begins over soup and will explode into a fight over Yitzhak’s death-bed blessing.  The second brother is banished from the family, off to create a legacy of his own. He departs in hate and with a promise to kill his brother as soon as the mourning period is over.  Once again, one brother is in, and the other brother is out. The story of our people seems to be getting off to a problematic and troubling start.

All drashot, and all drasha-makers, look to see what we should learn from the parasha. This parsha is challenging, with its tales of brothers quarreling, and with “the Jewish brother” behaving in a rather deceitful and despicable manner.  Certainly the Torah does not intend for us to learn that we should lie and cheat in the service of our people!  That would be unthinkable.

Like all parshiot, the story resonates with the events we live out in our own lives. The unfortunate quarrel between the descendants of Yitzhak and the descendants of Yishma’el are very present in our time, and as distressing to consider as it is to read of Yakov purchasing birth-right and stealing blessing.

Because we reread the Torah each year, we know how this particular brotherly conflict turns out, even though the re-meeting of the brothers will not happen until two Shabbatot hence.  But when we arrive at that point in the story, we see a humbled and apologetic (though fearful) Yakov and a generous and forgiving Esav.

Perhaps the teaching of this parshah is simply that while conflict and in-fighting occur, there is always the hope for for forgiveness and reconciliation.  For has not HaShem created enough blessing for all the world to share? We should only be blessed to live long enough to witness peace and harmony between brothers being lifted up off the parchment of Torah, and brought powerfully and completely into our lives, speedily and in our day – bimherah ubiyamenu. Amen

Shabbat Shalom



3 Responses to “Aleh Toldot Yitzhak Now the Jewish story begins #Torah”

  1. Shirley Gould said

    Six parashot are named for individuals, only one for a woman, Sarah. Do I goto the head of the class?

  2. Warren Gould said

    Nonetheless, it is good to know that some brothers can get along.

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