Parashat Toldot: A cautionary tale

In this discourse on the meaning of the word “toldot,” our default is applying it in anthropocentric terms. But is that correct?

 Introducing the world 'toldot' with the world and the universe - how we look at the world and our lives (Illustrative). (photo credit: Greg Rakozy/Unsplash)
Introducing the world 'toldot' with the world and the universe - how we look at the world and our lives (Illustrative).
(photo credit: Greg Rakozy/Unsplash)

This week’s parasha, Toldot, opens, “Ve’ele toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham” (Gen. 25:19). 

Most of these words are simple to translate and understand.

“Ve’ele,” “and these,” connects us back to something immediately beforehand – to “Ve’ele toldot Yishmael” (Gen. 25:12). There, the “and” refers us back to the previous paragraph (Gen. 25:7-11), which talks about the life and death of Abraham, and how Isaac (Yitzhak) and Ishmael came together to bury their father.

What does the word "toldot" mean?

The word that is not so clear is “toldot.” According to Rashi (1040-1105, France), it means “offspring” or “begettings” as Edward Fox (b. 1947, US) translates it, and “lineage” as Robert Alter (b. 1935, US) states. Stephen Mitchell (b. 1943, US) reads toldot as “descendants. Ramban (1194-1268, Spain, Israel), more closely aligning with Rashi, Fox, and Alter, translates the sentence as “And these are the children of Isaac,” with Hertz (1872-1946, England) in a similar vein translating toldot as “generations.” However, Sforno (1475-1550, Italy) says it means “his days gave birth to the history that follows.” Or to put it another way, this chronicles the history that follows the birth of the individual mentioned. Ellen Frankel (b. 1951, US) translates “ve’ele toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham” as “This is the story of Isaac the son of Abraham.”

In this Torah conversation across the generations, we note that Rashi, Fox, Alter, Ramban and Hertz are more focused on the individuals born – Ishmael and Isaac; while Sforno and Frankel are more concerned with their actions, as well as those of their descendants. In some ways, the former group of commentators/translators are more limited in their understanding of the word “toldot,” while Sforno and Frankel are more expansive.

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

In this discourse on the meaning of the word “toldot,” our default is applying it in anthropocentric terms. We find it used in a number of ways, in addition to what has been explored above, that affirm that assumption, including references to the descendants of Adam (Gen. 5:1), Noah (Gen. 6:9), Shem (Gen. 10:1; 11:10), Terah (Gen. 11:27), Esau (Gen. 36:1; 9), Jacob (Gen. 37:2), Aaron and Moses (Num. 3:1), and Levi (Ex. 6:16;19). 

And yet, the very first mention of the word “toldot” in the Torah does not have to do with humans. We read in the second chapter of Genesis (2:4), “Ele toldot hashamayim veha’aretz,” “These are the products/tale/generations/begettings of the heaven and the earth.” What an extraordinary opening this presents to shake our normal and accepted way of thinking by introducing the word “toldot” not in connection with humans but, rather, with the world and the universe – nudging us, if you will, to consider a biocentric and not an anthropocentric orientation in how we look at the world and our lives.

This is not the only biocentric message we find in the text. A few sentences earlier we are told that on the sixth day of Creation, after God surveyed the world following the creation of humans, God called what God saw “tov meod,” “very good” (Gen. 1:31). 

This stands in contrast to the other days of Creation, when God says only “tov,” “good.” An anthropocentric reading of the text says the world was created for us, with humans as the pinnacle, causing God to describe what God saw then as “very good.” But there is another reading, which presents a different orientation. It says the world was not created for us; we just happened to be the last piece of the puzzle. The “very good” spoken by God is not directed to us but rather to the totality of Creation that does not distinguish between humans and the rest of Creation.This is also upheld by the order in which the world was created. If certain elements created before humans were to disappear, so would we. In fact, in this case, the contradistinction of “good” and “very good” is not so great. The goodness of all that was created before us, a goodness that was used by God to describe what God saw, lets us know that all the parts of Creation assembled before humans have intrinsic value of goodness separate from how we might classify them. 

That godly perspective finds a voice in Kabbalah as Daniel Matt (b. 1950, US) reminds us in his book The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism. He quotes Rav Kook (1865-1935, Russia, Israel): “The essence of divinity is found in every single thing – nothing but it exists. Since it causes every thing to be, no thing can live by anything else. It enlivens them; its existence exists in each existent. Do not attribute duality to God. Let God be solely God. If you suppose that Ein Sof [the endless aspect of God that permeates everything] emanates until a certain point, and that from that point on is outside of it, you have dualized. God forbid! Realize, rather, that Ein Sof exists in each existent. Do not say ‘This is a stone and not God.’ God forbid! Rather, all existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity.”

“The essence of divinity is found in every single thing – nothing but it exists. Since it causes every thing to be, no thing can live by anything else. It enlivens them; its existence exists in each existent. Do not attribute duality to God. Let God be solely God. If you suppose that Ein Sof [the endless aspect of God that permeates everything] emanates until a certain point, and that from that point on is outside of it, you have dualized. God forbid! Realize, rather, that Ein Sof exists in each existent. Do not say ‘This is a stone and not God.’ God forbid! Rather, all existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity.”

Daniel Matt, quoting Rav Kook

One of the many challenges of the climate crisis, an assault on God’s creation, is that too often we approach that task from an anthropocentric vista – a broader biocentric lodestar offers more embracing and divergent insights that can open doors to better solutions and a greater sense of urgency.

WE BEGAN this exploration of the opening sentence of this week’s parasha by noting that “ve,” “and,” connects us to previous events. Rabbi Ellie Munk (1900-1981, France) observes, quoting R. Abahu (279-320, Israel), that in the sentence from the second chapter of Genesis there is no “ve, “and,” at the beginning of the sentence, which means it stands alone, even though we read about Creation in the first chapter of the book of Genesis.

Munk teaches further, drawing from R. Abahu in the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 30:1): “God had previously created worlds which had fallen short of the ideal. He destroyed them and returned them to a state of chaos. However, the world we live in does meet the standards for the ideal, and so God says: ‘These are the products....’ This is a break with the previous worlds whose origins did not last, for they returned to a state of chaos” (The Call of the Torah, vol. 1, Bereshis, p. 24, Mesorah Publications).

Perhaps we find comfort from this midrash stating that this world stands the test of standards. At the same time, we can also read it as a cautionary tale challenging human hubris. As we all write “the story of the generations,” let us pause, putting down our pen, and consider that our agency derives not solely from being human but from a deeper, fuller, more expansive perspective.

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.