Monday, November 5, 2007

Toldot 1

Toldot reads like a Divine essay on family systems as it chronicles wide-ranging aspects of building a household. The parsha covers infertility, coalitions, favoritism, and sibling rivalry. It provides a study of early child rearing which includes the challenges of recognizing personality types and building on strengths.

Of particular interest to me is the fact that Parshat Toldot includes insights on how being a son or daughter impacts a person's life. The word toldot is pregnant with implications. Rashi translates it as offspring, while Sforno says toldot means story. These are related, as one way or another a person's story is his offspring.

Curiously, the parsha's opening statement, "And these are the toldot of Yitzchak", is followed by neither a list of Yitzchak's children, nor by a story about Yitzchak. The second half of the sentence, "Avraham gave birth to (holeed et) Yitzchak", doesn't even sound like it's about Yitzchak.

The first sentence of Toldot teaches us that a person's story, a person’s children, can only be understood if you know who birthed him. Upon reaching the age of responsibility an individual becomes obligated to keep Torah and Mitzvot. This is known as a bar or bat mitzvah. Similarly, upstanding young Jewish men and women are called bnei and bnot Torah. This association of the image of being a son or daughter in the context of observance of mitzvot is striking.

On the other hand, one who commits an aveira is called a baal or baalat aveira; a master of sin. The message seems to be that in the realm of mitzvot we must remember that we are someone's son or daughter. However, when we miss the mark of what is right we must own our actions and not blame our parents for what is ours.

While some may feel inclined to blame mothers or fathers for all that is difficult in life while crediting themselves with success and growth, the opposite approach is the appropriate one. Intertwined throughout Parshat Toldot and foreshadowed in the opening pasuk is the idea that parents and children are deeply connected. The good in children is a positive reflection on parents, and by logical extension on grandparents. The negative actions of offspring, however, are their own responsibility.

Yaakov and Eisav were the children of Yitzchak and the grandchildren of Avraham in terms of potential and actual goodness. When they reached the responsible hour of their Bar Mitzvahs THEY chose who they wanted to be, one going to hunt in fields, the other staying in to learn. And they were held accountable for the consequences of those decisions. We are all someone's son or daughter and our actions reflect on our lineage. We must remember that what our parents did was the best they could. It is up to us to own and try to correct our imperfections. May we be blessed with continued growth as we tweak the good work our parents began.

I wrote this several years ago in honor of my nephew's bar mitzvah. May the Torah he is presently learning in the Old City of Jerusalem be a merit and inspiration for his wonderful parents and grandparents who set him on the right path.


uriyo said...

I like your distinction between bnei mitzvah and ba'alei aveirah.

However, I think a more accurate translation of ba'al is "the one who has."

Yosef's brothers see him and sneer, "Here comes the dreamer!" The Hebrew is "ba'al hachalomot." They aren't praising him as the master of dreamers, just describing him as someone who has dreams, i.e., a dreamer.

"Ba'al chov" means someone who has a debt. He certainly isn't a master of debt.

This also explains the neutral connotations of "ba'al" in the context of marriage. It doesn't mean "the master of his wife," but rather "the one who has a wife," i.e., a husband.

Your drashah still works!


rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Thanks. Points well taken.