This is a time of year when so many of us are intensely aware of family dynamics, and of all the little stories we tell ourselves about our families.
Maybe you’ve been self-conscious about how no family could ever be as crazy as yours. Maybe you’ve experiencing feelings of loss and estrangement. Perhaps it’s a time of joy and bonding across generations. Or this is could just simply be a quiet time. But together.
I have always loved how the Torah is obsessed with family dynamics and stories about how we relate to others. And right at the beginning of our parsha begins this week there’s a pretty simple word: toldot
V’eleh toldot Yitzchak ben Avraham.
These are the toldot – the “generations” of Isaac, son of Abraham.
It’s used to describe a generational shift in our Torah’s narrative – from the stories about Abraham and Sarah and their children to the stories about Isaac and Rebecca and their children.
Toldot is a common enough word that appears throughout the Torah over and over again. It’s usually translated as “generations,” and is mostly unremarkable. Rarely do any of our wise commentators make a point of stopping and saying something about it.
But when the rabbis come across this word, toldot, in this place in the Torah, they pause. There’s an acknowledgement of mystery. This toldot does not mean what you think it means. The English translation doesn’t suffice.
Does toldot really mean, as one group imagines (see Sforno ad loc.), “the events of the life of Isaac”? Or does it mean, as another group imagines (see Rashi ad loc.), “the children of Isaac”?
We’re here at this pivot point in the Torah, as we transition from the story of one generation to the story of the next. And it’s precisely here in this moment of change, that our tradition is asking us to pause and peer beneath the surface.
What are toldot?
If it means “the events of the life of Isaac, son of Abraham,” then the Torah wants us to zoom in on one person and the life of his generation.
If it means “the children of Isaac, son of Abraham,” then the Torah is inviting us to take a wider perspective, looking at relationships across generations.
Is it about one generation, or is it about generations?
I was struck reading the Torah this week that this tiny shift in understanding the meaning of this otherwise common word, not only shapes the narrative that will follow, but can also give us two radically different ways of understanding what it means to relate to those of different generations.
Do we understand ourselves primarily by the identity of our own generation? Or do we zoom out, and consider our relationship across time and space? Are we part of one generation, or multiple, coexisting generations?
I was thinking about this particularly in light of a new catchphrase and meme that’s been picking up steam. Maybe you’ve heard it? Maybe you said it (or thought it) at your Thanksgiving Table? It’s being used as a retort to dismiss and mock the seemingly outdated, condescending attitudes of older people, particularly baby boomers?
Say it with me, with a little snark? “OK Boomer.”
The New York Times, heralding “The End of Friendly Generational Relations,” has described OK Boomer as an “endlessly repeated retort to the problem of older people who just don’t get it, a rallying cry for millions of fed-up kids.” It’s become the catchy, sassy, kind-of-understandable-if-not-rude-and-ageist way of venting frustration and punching up at the over-40 set.
When I stumbled into this meme a month ago, I admit that I was saddened. Here we go – more snark, more disparaging slogans, another example of “the increasingly polarized society in which we live. A society in which membership in Group A necessarily translates to contempt and disregard for Group B, in which nuance is thrown out the window, in which complex issues are distilled to a tweet.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of credibility behind OK Boomer’s argument that the generations above us sowed the toxic seeds of the most damning issues of our time: the welfare of the planet, income inequality, racism, sexism. And OK Boomer is also a response to disparaging of millennials – especially the accusations of laziness and misaligned priorities. SO I can understand where this urge comes from to say: “ugh they just don’t get it and don’t want to, and we’ve tried explaining, and they don’t listen, so now we’ll just dismiss them!”
But I wonder what it says about the rest of us, when we disparage an entire generation. When we miss the depth of humankind. When we flatten a story.
I want to admit that I’m totally guilty of this – just usually in the other direction. I was born into that very strange micro-generation straddling the end of Gen-X and the beginning of the Millennials.
I remember life before personal computers and cell phones and email. I made a mixtape with REM and Pearl Jam recorded live off the radio. It was a big upgrade when I got to use to use my mom’s electric typewriter to write school essays.
And from this “enlightened” vantage point, I often look down at my millennial peers with more than just a bit of prejudice: why do you always have to be looking at your phone? When did cancelling plans at the last minute become a national pastime? Does everything deserve a snarky tweet? Who decided avocado toast and La Croix was a cultural delicacy?
I get how easy it is to lament one’s own sense of loss at the passing of time by passing judgment onto the next generation. And likewise, how easy it is to lament one’s misfortunes by assigning judgment onto the previous.
But I wonder what would Isaac would have said, looking back at his father Abraham’s generation – a generation filled with its own moral failures, represented in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah? Would he have mocked it, potentially ignoring his own blind spots?
I think what the Torah is offering us here, in the mystery of the word toldot, is a way to think about how we relate to other generations, even in times of great upheaval. If we understand it as meaning “These are the events of the life of Isaac,” then it’s a story of just one generation. Bounded by one perspective from one life. And then we can fall into the far-too-easy trap of assigning blame across generations and across perspectives.
But if we understand it as meaning “These are the children of Isaac, son of Abraham,” then we widen our scope across two – even three – generations.
It happens that this is the most widely accepted understanding the Torah’s words. It’s one that opens us up and invites us to see that our stories are bound up in each other’s. To understand that there’s no generation that is ever truly walled-off and independent from the previous or the next. That the very concept of a generation – whether Boomer or Millennial – is insufficient to capture all the beauty and nuances and failures and gains of our lives. That how you relate to others of any age is far more consequential than the age into which you were born.
It turns out that even Isaac isn’t so great at this cross-generational awareness. There’s a lot of intergenerational trauma amongst our ancestors. The risk is always there for them, just as it is for us. The question is how we deal with it.
And while Isaac makes his own mistakes, here’s one thing he does well:
When he makes his own journey through our ancient lands, he happens to revisit many of the same places through which his father, Abraham travelled. And as Isaac journeys, he stops at the same wells his father dug. And a generation later, he cleans them out. Re-digs them. Helps the water flow once more. And then he goes on with his journey.
This is the best generational model we have: don’t discount the work of the generation that came before you. Just renew it with your own efforts.