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Torah Commentary Blog

Toledot
by Bettijane Eisenpreis


For the next few weeks, Jews everywhere will be studying the story of Jacob, his trials, travels and eventual triumph. But first, let us look at the Hebrew title of the portion, Toledot, because it occurs frequently in the Bible. The sages said of the Torah, “Turn it, and turn it again, for everything is in it.” So what does “toledot” mean?

This is the story (toledot) of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac.
Genesis 25:19
 
The quote above is somewhat misleading. What follows is not just the story of Isaac. It’s the beginning of the story of the twins, Easau the firstborn, and Jacob, who came out clinging to his brother’s heel. It’s also the story of Rebecca, the children’s mother, who schemed so that Jacob, her favorite, would inherit the birthright from his father.
 
For the next few weeks, Jews everywhere will be studying the story of Jacob, his trials, travels and eventual triumph. But first, let us look at the Hebrew title of the portion, Toledot, because it occurs frequently in the Bible. The sages said of the Torah, “Turn it, and turn it again, for everything is in it.” So what does “toledot” mean?
 
The old Jewish Publication Society Bible that I was given on my Confirmation many, many years ago, says, “These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son.” Everett Fox, in The Five Books of Moses, translates the word as “begettings.” “The Torah, A Woman’s Commentary” says “line,” while the current Jewish Publication Society translation, which we use at Emanu-El, says “story’.
 
Having spent the last 20 years trying to understand a little Hebrew, I was able to look up the root of the word, the Hebrew letters “yud,” “lamed” and “dalet,” and that together they spell the verb for giving birth. “Yeled” means boy and “yalda”, girl, so it stands to reason that the plural of boys and girls means not just “children” but children’s children -- generations.
 
I felt like I was swimming in a sea of information, but not of knowledge. So I asked a rabbi, in this case Assistant Rabbi Andrue Kahn. Rabbi Kahn explained that toledot is also used earlier in Genesis – “This is the tale (literally the begettings) of the heavens and the earth when they were created.”
 
According to the rabbi, the people who wrote the Bible were just trying to make sense of a very confusing world.   How the world and the people in it came to be could be an overwhelming puzzle to them, but they could relate to families. They all had mothers and fathers and, if the Lord so pleased, children to succeed them. They could see the “story” of the Jewish people, and indeed of the world, as the natural result of the birth process, a family story.
 
We read the Bible two ways – as it was written and as 21st Century Jews, trying to make it relevant to our lives.  If you watch programs about genealogy on public television or have tried to trace your roots through one of the many computer programs available, you know how compelling the idea of “begettings” or “generations” can be. It makes us more secure, knowing where and to whom we belong.
 
But the people who wrote the Bible were simply trying to make sense of life – of the miracle of Creation and of the creation of the Jewish people. And to do so, they told a family story, a story so compelling that it has lived to this day.  So, yes, you may translate toledot as “begettings,” if you like. But in the end the current JPS is right. This is the ”story” of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and of you and me.
 


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