Eyal Bitton
Cantor, composer, lyricist.

Toldot – Getting to Know Yourself

Two weekends ago, on Halloween, I saw The King and I at the Lincoln Center in New York. I had never seen it live. I’d seen the film many years ago. I was very familiar with many of the musical numbers. Who doesn’t know Getting to Know You, My Lord and Master, and Shall We Dance? After all, these and other tunes from this musical are classics that we’ve all heard countless times.

I was, therefore, surprised at how much I enjoyed the show. It was a superb production with truly fine acting. It could have been hokey. Instead it was heartening and honest. With respect to the work itself, I had never paid attention to how progressive this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical was.

Set in the 1860s, the King of Siam seeks to modernize his country. To this end, he hires an English governess, named Anna, to educate and help westernize his children. The king has a genuine desire to embrace the modern world while maintaining his cultural identity. Finding this balance proves to be a monumental task as he has great difficulty discarding or unlearning certain behaviours and beliefs that were shaped early on.

The king does show progress and an open mind, to a certain degree. This is seen, in particular, in his attitude towards women. Anna’s influence on him grows such that he takes great strides in seeing women as equals. Nevertheless, they are but strides; he never quite gets there. Why can’t he fully overcome his views? Because, again, these perspectives are so inculcated into him. His ultimate triumph rests in his willingness to see his own children surpass him. He knows that things do not have to remain the way they always were.

As the king lies on his death bed, he invites his son, the prince, to pass new laws. The young prince does. These laws show a more progressive bent. The king could show disapproval for the fact that his son isn’t preserving his laws. He doesn’t. He lets his son find his own voice.

Isaac – a Son and a Father

This coming Shabbat, we will be reading Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9). It begins by informing us that we are about to read the story of Isaac, son of Abraham.

In the prologue of the parasha, Isaac’s sons are born. We are told that they are destined for greatness and that the younger son, Jacob, will reach greater heights than his older brother.

Later, Isaac, who has been displaced a number of times. When the Philistines grow jealous of his success, they send him away. He moves to the wadi of Gerar and digs the wells that his father, Abraham, had dug. His father’s legacy lives on. But shortly after, because of strife with local herdsmen, he picks up and leaves. Then the same thing happens and he chooses to settle elsewhere once again. So what has become of Abraham’s legacy? Isaac had continued in his footsteps, digging the same wells his father had dug. Isaac moves on. He could dig his heels in, so to speak, and fight. He could argue that these wells had been his father’s and that he is bound to remain there. Yet he doesn’t. He learns from his father and then moves on. He doesn’t discard his father’s teachings; he learns from them and then surpasses them.

In his later years, Isaac seeks to give his blessing to his eldest son, Esau. Being old and now blind, he is apparently fooled by his second son’s, Jacob’s, less than convincing ruse in which he crudely poses as his older brother. Isaac then blesses Jacob instead of Esau.

Some will say that Isaac was genuinely fooled. My read of the story is that Isaac knew exactly who he was blessing but played along for the sake of plausible deniability.

In so doing, Isaac’s message is that things do not have to be the way they used to be. Things do not have to be the way you would expect them to be. Things can change. The King of Siam, in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, understood this. Abraham understood this. Isaac understood this. Tradition is valuable but merit is, perhaps, more valuable. Learning from your parents and ancestors is noble. Knowing when and how to proceed on your own path is one of the lessons that we are expected to learn.

About the Author
Eyal Bitton is the cantor of Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon where he incorporates Sephardi/Moroccan music, Ashkenazi music, popular adaptations, and original compositions into the service. As a composer and writer, his theatrical works have been produced in the US, Canada, Kenya, and China.
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