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? Continue reading “What does “OK Boomer” say about us?”