Parashat Toldot 5778

Rabbi Janet Burden, 17 November 2017

Eileh toledot Yitzchak ben Avraham… This phrase is rendered in many English translations of the Bible as “These are the descendants of Isaac, the son of Abraham.” Although this is unquestionably a ‘valid’ translation which makes apparent contextual sense, it demonstrates how a literal rendering can sometimes fail to reflect the nuance of the Hebrew.

The translators of the JPS edition offer an alternative, basing themselves on the plain sense of identical phrasing used earlier in Genesis: Eileh toledot hashamayim v’ha-aretz… (2:4). We could hardly translate this phrase as “These are the descendants of the heaven and the earth” (unless we took an unwarranted diversion into Sky Father / Earth Mother spirituality!). Clearly, the phrase is being used to complete and close the first creation narrative set out in the Torah: “Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created.” Following this reasoning, the opening words of this week’s portion are rendered consistently, as “This is the story of Isaac, the son of Abraham.”

Nu? And so what? Why does such a small shift matter to me? Most people wouldn’t even notice this insignificant detail. Ah, well, we all have our schticks, I suppose, and the primacy of ‘story’ over ‘genealogy’ is one of mine.

As a Jew-by-Choice, I am regularly forced (often by others) to reflect on the nature of my Jewish identity. Sadly, coming from Jewish descent is still treated as the ‘gold standard’ of Jewish authenticity in parts of our community; so much so that many who have been drawn to join the Jewish people resort to DNA testing to prove that they really do have Jewish blood – and thus a right to take their place in the community. I have so far resisted the temptation, not because I am not curious about my ancestry – I think most people are – but because I refuse to buy in to this authenticity game.

One function of the Genesis narratives might be seen as establishing a clear genealogical line of which I am not part. Does that mean that they are not relevant to me? Of course not! These stories have shaped my self-understanding since my earliest years, even if I didn’t always know what to make of them. The very fact that no one could answer my questions (or even tolerate the existence of the questions) is what led me to where I am: living as a very proud and staunchly Liberal Jew.

The fact that I have been privileged enough to train to serve our community as a rabbi has always been secondary to me. My goal was and remains to serve the Jewish people. I would have embraced whatever path unfolded before me as I lived by the Jewish stories, values and practices that I have chosen to guide my life. Nonetheless, I never forget how fortunate I have been, and I thank those who supported me through my training and the Liberal movement who offered me the chance to serve the wonderful communities with which I have been associated over the 15 years of my rabbinate.

It hasn’t always been easy, but then, worthwhile struggles never are. It gets old being judged by appearances and annoying to be asked continually to explain my background. But hey, as I said, we all have our schticks, and it is my duty to respond thoughtfully to those of others – especially if I want them to respond thoughtfully to mine.

So here is my schtick again: It is not through the children to which our ancestors gave birth that I connect to the Jewish people, but rather to the stories that they engendered. I am Israel in the Biblical sense of that word, as one who struggles with God. That struggle takes place in the context of honouring the generations of a people, my people, who have also striven for meaning, for connection with the Divine. May I be granted the strength to continue that struggle for many years to come.

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