Toledot: the family ties that bind a people together

 Jewish history is told in terms of Jewish family. We chart our progress through the generations, marvelling at how we are able to adapt and to change, to move countries and to begin again, yet never having to begin at the beginning – we take with us the wisdom and the tradition of our ancestors to support and nourish us as we add our own experiences and our own lives to the chain.

We are part of an eternal covenant.  Since Abraham’s first encounter with God that set him off on his journey as an Ivri (one who passes over into a new place), and since the encounter at Sinai when the whole Jewish people – (including all who were yet to be born and all who would willingly join with us) – we have been a family with a powerful tradition that has enabled us to retain our identity despite huge shifts in geography, language, autonomy, and cultural expression.  Whenever one tries to dissect and define Jewish identity, there is immediately a problem that no absolute characterization can be agreed upon – there are secular and religious Jews, culinary and cultural Jews, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Italkit and Romaniot;  there are Jews who passionately believe in a personal God and others who are passionately agnostic. What binds us is the notion of peoplehood – specifically that of toledot – of family.

The word itself comes from the root to give birth, yet we first find it early on in the book of Genesis when God is creating the world: –  אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, בְּהִבָּרְאָם:  בְּיוֹם, עֲשׂוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים–אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם.:

“These are the generations (toledot) of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Eternal God made earth and heavens.  (Gen 2:4). 

The term is clearly much more than the physical giving birth – it has to do with developments, with outcomes, with the next stage, and virtually every time it is found in the book of Genesis it has a transitional function, introducing the new and concluding the story of the old.  In the ten passages in which the word is used in Genesis, each time there is an important liminal point –a break but at the same time a kind of continuation.   So for example we have the toledot of the creation of the world which is then left to run, the toledot of Adam whose sons bring chaos into the world, the toledot of Noah, upon whom rest the hopes of mending the world, of the three sons of Noah who are the founding ancestors of the known world, and then the specific genealogy of Shem from whom we descend and which takes us to Abraham. Then we have the generations (toledot) of Abraham, of Ishmael, of Isaac, of Esau and finally of Jacob.

I find it deeply interesting that the bible gives us the generations not only of the line from whom we ourselves descend, but also of those who are connected to us but who are no longer “of” us.  The recording of the other genealogical threads reminds us of what is truly important:- that there is family and family, connections and bonds, and some are closer and others less so, but we are ultimately all one humanity even when our stories and our lineages diverge.

The story today begins with the toledot of Isaac, but is really interested in the fate of his younger son Jacob.  And it is Jacob, shortly to be renamed Israel on account of his own encounter with God, who is the ancestor from whom we generate our own history. In this sidra Jacob is given two blessings by his father: the first is the blessing of the first-born that his father had intended for Esau, the second is given to him as he departed for Paddan Aram to find a wife for himself and to begin a new life. One blessing was about the recognition and importance of the ancestral tradition of covenant, the other was about striking out into new territory. One was concerned with material well being, the other about spiritual direction and the future of the Jewish people.

What becomes clear is the inextricable link between past and future, that to try to have one without the other is to misunderstand the nature of Jewish identity.  And what becomes clear too is that each new generation has to find their journey and their meaning for themselves, building upon what has been given to them by their parents and grandparents, but creating something new as well, to pass on to their children and grandchildren.

Our history really is about toledot – the concluding of the story of one generation and the new story of the next loosely threaded onto it.  With each new generation there is always going to be change, but at the same time we know that the fundamental blessings continue down the years, and that while some of the paths seem to disappear over the horizon and out of our sight, that is only to be expected and accommodated.

We do the best we can in our own generation, and we trust the ones who come after us to have their own encounter to add to the richness that is passed on.  Isaac cannot ever have expected the boy he named from youth as Ya’akov – the bent one, the one who clung to the heel of his brother, the one who delayed – to become Yisrael, the one who struggles with God and overcomes.

 

Encountering God is easy: approach with a willing heart and God will find us

A modern mind may look at the book of Leviticus and feel the distance. The world of ritual purity and impurity, of worship through sacrificial system etc is not one we instinctively understand and indeed are likely to find problematic. How can it be possible to come closer to God through such acts of ritual sacrifice?
Traditional Jewish practise dictates that young children are introduced to bible by studying Leviticus, based on the statement by Rav Assi who said that young children began their Torah studies with Leviticus and not with Genesis because young children are pure, and the sacrifices explained in Leviticus are pure, so the pure should study the pure. (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3.) I find it fascinating that our children begin not with the narratives that we find so often in books of bible stories for bedtime, not with the great dramas of exodus or Sinai, but with texts that do not pretend to have any historical interest, but are filled with rules and regulations about how to worship in the Sanctuary. The heart of Leviticus is that we have to learn how to encounter the God who dwells amongst us –remember that the Mishkan was built to remind people of the presence of God within and among them.
As we learn a series of rituals in order to approach God and come closer to an encounter with the divine, it becomes normative to think of God as a being who is in relationship with us. Leviticus teaches us that we can approach God, that God is open to our searching, indeed wants us to search. Leviticus also teaches that people do wrong things, both deliberately and unwittingly, and in either case forgiveness is not only possible it is waiting for us. What forgiveness requires is for us to know and acknowledge the wrong, and to do something about it in order to be absolved from the guilt.
Children, who have no difficulty believing in a divine being and who indeed often seem most at home in a world of searching for meaning, are indeed well able to begin to look at the texts in Leviticus that might be off putting for their more world weary parents. Children understand that bad behaviour has bad consequences, and that doing something to mitigate the behaviour will lead to better consequences. They believe that they will be forgiven no matter what they do, that they are loveable and acceptable even if their actions may not be.
So as we read the book of Leviticus, let’s remember it isn’t JUST a rule book for the priests, but a philosophy that says – approaching God is very easy, and if we do it thoughtfully, appropriately and mindfully then we will achieve what we want. The word used for sacrifice (korban) and for nearness share the same root k-r-v. Coming closer to God, having God come closer to us is what the ritual system is all about. We have replaced the structure with prayer and liturgy, but the underpinning understanding is the same. All we have to do is approach with a willing heart, and God will find us.