If you were asked to provide a chronicle of your life, where would you start? In this week’s Torah reading, we are presented with one of three paradigms for where to begin one’s chronicle. “These are the toldot of Isaac / וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק.”
I have left toldot – the namesake of this week’s parsha – untranslated intentionally, because the Torah’s different uses of this word raise the very question of life story.
Where does Yitchak‘s chronicle begin? “Avraham had Yitzchak / אַבְרָהָם הוֹלִיד אֶת יִצְחָק.” In other words, Yitzchak‘s life story begins with a look back, to Avraham his father. Here, “toldot” might be translated as “origins,” which is consistent with what we know about Yitzchak from the Torah. For example, Yitzchak‘s wife Rivka is first asked to marry him by Avraham‘s servant Eliezer, and when they later meet, Yitzchak immediately brings Rivka into his mother Sara‘s tent. Also, in several particulars, Yitzchak‘s life journey has him following closely in his father’s footsteps. In short, Yitzchak‘s chronicle is his heritage.
Contrast this with Yaakov‘s toldot: “These are the toldot of Yaakov; Yosef was 17 years old / אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב יוֹסֵף בֶּן שְׁבַע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה.” Where does Yaakov‘s chronicle begin? With his son Yosef! The toldot here might be translated as “offspring,” with a focus on one particular child. Yaakov‘s life story does not begin with a look back but a look forward to future generations, beginning specifically with his special love for Yosef. And that special love arguably sets in motion our descent into slavery and exile as Bnei Yisrael. We know Yaakov not as much for his origins – which in part he broke from dramatically – as for his descendants.
Finally, for a third model, let’s look back to Noach: “These are the toldot of Noach; Noach was a righteous man perfect in his generations / אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו.” What are the toldot of Noach? Not the people who came before or after him, but rather his own personal character. Of the three paradigms for toldot, this arguably would justify the least literal translation, with no direct connection to his status as a child or parent. The toldot of Noach are his values.
Each of us, I believe, is the sum total of all three of these toldot: our origins, our offspring and our character. One or more of these can come more easily for some of us – can be more natural – while others might be more challenging. Ultimately, we hope, they all add up to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.