Friday, November 16, 2012

Parshat Toldot - פרשת תולדות

This week's Parsha opens with the words, "וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם: אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק - And these are the generations of Yitzchak, Avraham's son: Avraham begot Yitzchak."

There is a golden rule in the study of Torah that, as the Torah is perfect, there are no supefluous words anywhere. Each and every word has a meaning. Why, therefore, are we twice told that Yitzchak was Avraham's son?

Rav Machlis of Ma'alot Dafna in Jerusalem proposes an interesting insight as to why the seemingly needless repetition is warranted. The first mention, "יִצְחָק בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם," is meant to refer to Yitzchak. We may learn from these words that Yitzchak defined himself as "Yitzchak, the son of Avraham." Yitzchak's respect and love for his father extended to him determining himself by his father.

The next phrase, "אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק - Avraham begot Yitzchak" can be understood as Avraham, the father, referring to himself by mentioning his son. While it is inspiring for the son to realise his position by defering to his father, I find it beautiful, and rather poetic, that Avraham Avinu found himself to be fulfilled through his son. Of course the positions of father and son should never be confused, and the son must always defer to the father, but I personally find this expression of mutual love and respect in Avraham and Yitzchak's relationship to be a true measure of the appreciation and depth of their love for one another.

Another interesting phenomenon I'd like to point out comes in response to an academic article I read last year during my studies. Written by feminist Susan Moller-Okin, the rhetorical question (more of an attack, really,) is asked why we read of "all those endless begats" such as the one found above, whereby a father (Avraham in our case) has a son (Yitzchak here), born to him without the mother being mentioned at all. When I first heard this, it really bothered me. Truth be told, it still does, but I'm sure that I'll find an answer if I do my searching. People told me that while it is clear that we wouldn't write things in such a way today, at the time that Avraham lived, women were very much marginalised by society. Whether the Torah is divine or not, (and I firmly believe that it is,) it was suggested to me that we can "excuse" this uncomfortable phrase as a sign of times past.

Nevertheless, reading through the parsha this last week, I realised something that does provide an answer of sorts to the allegation that Judaism is intrinsically sexist and discriminatory. Only a few verses after the one quoted above, we read that, " וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת-עֵשָׂו, כִּי-צַיִד בְּפִיו; וְרִבְקָה, אֹהֶבֶת אֶת-יַעֲקֹב - Yitzchak loved Esav, for trapping was in his mouth; and Rivkah loved Ya'acov."

It is intriguing to note that the two parents developed favourites at all, but I'd like to focus on the fact that while Yitzchak chose Esav, Rivkah favoured Ya'akov. Rivkah chose the 'right' son - the son from whom the Jewish people would emanate, the son who would turn out to be righteous. Responding to claims that Judaism is entirely discriminatory to women, it is important to note that no excuses are given for Yitzchak's "misjudgment" - women are regarded as typically being more insightful and in possession of the trait of בינה, proper understanding. I think that the right conclusion to draw is that there are no explanations given for this simple verse because none are really needed. Yitzchak, great as he was, could never have a woman's perception and understanding. During the Shmonah Esrei we speak of the three forefathers, but we don't mention the four foremothers. But this absolutely doesn't mean that they are of no value, that they had no contribution, and that we don't learn things from them. A glance further ahead in this week's parsha bears that out: Ya'akov, whom we learn represented absolute truth, was forced to bend somewhat after his mother compels him to disguise himself in order to "steal" a bracha from under his brother's nose. It is important not to underestimate the strength of Rivka's role here. She hoodwinked her own husband and forced her son to act against his will, but for a very good reason - she perceived that which the male characters couldn't. Without her guidance this whole episode could never have happened. Although it might seem as if women's roles are very low, if we closely analyse events and view them as a chain, rather than as isolated occurences, we may see just how vital women's contributions are. On a personal note, I may not have all the answers, but I feel that if I learn more about this, there are answers to be found.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

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