Talking Toldot

Today marks my first time on the bimah at Beth Emet. I purposely asked for the privilege on this particular Shabbat because this is the anniversary of my first trip to any bimah, as a Bar Mitzvah on Shabbat Machar Chodesh, more years ago than I care to reveal.  However, I can still chant the opening verses of the special haftarah, vayomer lo yehonatan, machar chodesh….   In those ancient days, the core of the bar mitzvah in my Conservative synagogue was the haftarah, and you only chanted the maftir verses if you had learned to chant the entire haftarah early enough.  Although I did chant the maftir portion, I had no recollection of it whatsoever, and had to go on line to find a luach for the year I was 13 to find out that Toldot was the Torah portion my haftarah had accompanied.  In addition to the relative unimportance of the parashah at my bar mitzvah, my congregation had eliminated the famous Today I am a fountain pen bar mitzvah speech, so my drash today gives me the opportunity to fill two gaps in my CV, getting to know my bar mitzvah Torah portion and giving the speech I was denied bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, in those days at this season.  In fact, one reason I didn’t remember what I had read was that all I was responsible for was sounding out the letters with the right trope – no attention was given to decoding the words.As a side note, at that time in the Reform temple, Confirmation was the big event, and bnai mitzvah were rare if they happened at all.   Today, of course, you’ll find bnai mitzvah all over the Reform movement, and you’ll find them very Torah-centered rather than haftarah-centered.  A topic for another day might be why, given the stress the other streams place on the Prophetic reading, the Reform movement, that once proudly proclaimed its practice of Prophetic Judaism, chose to stress Torah rather than Neviim when it broadly reclaimed the bar mitzvah.  Toldot is not the only parashah that can juxtapose with this haftarah for the day before rosh Chodesh. The clear connection is not with the parasha, but with the calendar; it lies in Jonathan’s words to David, tomorrow is rosh chodesh.  I have not found in the commentaries any suggestion that the juxtaposition of the enmity between Isaac’s twin sons and the love between David and Jonathan is anything other than an ironic coincidenceComing back after all these years to learn that my parashah was Toldot, I bring with me my current fascination with translation.  So first I ask, how would you translate Toldot, as in Aleh Toldot Yitzchak?  The classic JPS translation, as found in the almost as classic Hertz commentary, follows King James and says, These are the generations of Isaac.  New JPS, as found in Old Plaut and Etz Chayim, reads, This is the story of Isaac, although just a few verses earlier,  it has translated Aleh Toldot Yishmael as This is the line of Ishmael.  Chaim Stern, in New Plaut, gives us This is the line, and Everett Fox uses These are the begettings.  Robert Alter chooses This is the lineage, and in fact rips New JPS both for the mistranslation and for ignoring the intended parallelism in presenting the genealogies of Abraham’s sons.  ArtScroll, by the way, is similarly inconsistent, rendering These are the descendants of Ishmael and These are the offspring of Isaac.  In defense of New JPS, there are ancient authorities who translated Toldot as chronicles, and the NeXt Bible, a Christian online text, uses This is the account but from Rashi until New JPS, clearly the tie to birth and begetting is the prevalent reading.If every translation is a commentary, what comment do these variations make?  The inconsistencies might point us to a discussion of context dictating targum, translation; the deviation from the literal manifested in This is the story might engage us in a discussion of philosophies of translation – but how we translate the word Toldot is probably not critical to our reading or understanding of the parasha.So let’s take a look at another passage that has been translated in a variety of ways, and that may be more instructive in developing attitudes about the dysfunctional family at the center of the parashah, from whom we claim descent.  Esav ish yodeyah tziyad ish sadeh, v’yaakov ish tam yoshev ohalim, which I would translate as Esau was a man who knew hunting, a man of the field, and Jacob was a simple man who dwelled in tents. Yet this relatively simple Hebrew finds eight different translations in the texts I looked at, with many of them further explicating the word choice in the commentary.  Alter comes closest to rendering the Hebrew the way I do, Esau was a man skilled in hunting, a man of the field, and Jacob was a simple man, a dweller in tents. (In his note, Alter proposes that tam, simple, suggests integrity or even innocence.)  Everett Fox translates tam as plain.  ArtScroll provides Esau became one who knows trapping, a man of the field, but Jacob was a wholesome man, abiding in tents.  Chabad gives us Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents. In Old JPS, Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. (Hertz explains cunning as being used in its old sense at  skillful; and quietly disses the rendering of “tam” as quiet, explaining it as perfect, with an overtone of harmless.   New JPS reads Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp. This is akin to the NeXt text, which gives us tam as even-tempered, and then explains this as blameless. Chaim Stern provides Esau became a skilled hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a homespun man, keeping to the tents. 
 A scholarly friend explained to me the reason there is so much variety in translating tam, adding a rich if not terribly useful term to my vocabulary.  Tam, she said, is a hapax legomenon – the Greek term for a word that is found only once in the Chumash.  Thus translators tackle it in part by context, in part by what it seems to mean in its other biblical  usages, in Job, Psalms and Proverbs, and in other texts of the same period.   If the word sounds familiar to us, it is because we encounter it in that favorite line from the Passover Haggadah, tam, ma hu omer, applied to the third of the four sons, and translated in each of the three haggadot I reached for as simple.  So in the word tam, simple, we see that translation from the Hebrew is not as simple as it may seem at first.  Neither is evaluating the characters in our ancestral soap opera.   Prompted by New JPS, This is the story, let’s take a quick look first at the key story points in this parasha, and then one by one at the Isaac family.   ·        Rebecca has difficulty in conceiving.  ·        Although Isaac is relatively passive, especially compared to his father and to his sons, we do watch him get rich, and we watch him, as did his father before him, pass off his wife as a sister. ·        Esau sells his birthright to his brother, for the proverbial mess of pottage; he marries out, to the dismay of his parents.·        Isaac sends his preferred son out to catch him some dinner in preparation for receiving the paternal blessing.·        Rebecca sets up the masquerade so her preferred son gets the blessing instead.  Isaac either falls for the masquerade, or allows himself to appear duped, but stands firm when Esau shows up with dinner and with expectations.  ·        Esau threatens to kill the twin he’s been struggling with since they were in the womb; and Mama protects her baby by sending him to Uncle Laban’s to give Esau time to cool off, meanwhile manipulating Isaac into believing Jacob is leaving to go find himself a nice Aramean girl from Rebecca’s mishpochah.  Now let’s take a closer look at Isaac, Rebecca, Esau and Jacob — what the text tells us about them, what the midrashic tradition tells us about them, and how we, as 21st century cynics, react to them.  If you grew up, as I did, on cowboy movies, you could always tell the good guys from the bad guys by the color of their hats.  So do Isaac, Esau and Jacob wear black or white yarmulkes, and what color is Rebecca’s sheitel?Since new JPS tells us this is Isaac’s story, let’s start with him.  Neither the Torah text nor the midrash spends a lot of time on Isaac.  His main function in the narrative is to serve as the link between the activist generations.   He is shown as sensual in his obsession with food and with sex, aggressive in business, but otherwise passive — when he is sexually abused by his half brother, when he is led up to the mountain to be sacrificed by his father, when he is put into an arranged marriage, when he is told by God, in their single direct encounter, not to go to Egypt, and perhaps above all, as he endures his lengthy and monogamous marriage by allowing his wife constantly to manipulate him.Following his father’s example, he passes off his wife as his sister, is exposed – double entendre intended – by the reigning prince, but forgiven; gets rich despite some problems with quarrelsome neighbors, and at age 100, sees his son get married to a couple of local girls that Isaac and Rebecca don’t like.  He shows favoritism to his older son, but then allows himself to be duped into blessing the younger, standing firm in the aftermath.  That’s Isaac – good guy or bad guy?What about Rebecca?  The text emphasizes that she is the daughter of Bethuel and the sister of Laban, and the midrash tells us the emphasis on her connections is to demonstrate that she has turned out wonderful, despite her shady family background.  Her barrenness parallels her mother-in-law’s, but she doesn’t make up for this by offering her husband her hand-maid.  God likes her – he not only lets her conceive, but gives her and not Isaac the advance glimpse at how the twins she’s carrying are going to end up.  We are also supposed to like her; to admire her wisdom in recognizing that her younger son is the one who is more capable of carrying on the family business; and even though she assumes the blame for deceiving Isaac, we are not supposed to blame her.  Despite the basically sympathetic treatment of Esau in the text, the Tradition hates him.    The text tells us he’s an outdoorsman, knowledgeable about hunting.  It shows only mild disapproval of his spurning the birthright and of his first marriages; it shows him as eager to do his father’s bidding and prepare the last supper – side note, Isaac lives another sixty years after the poignant deathbed scenes – and he is sincerely upset and distraught at being cheated out of the blessing, and presumably the responsibilities that come with it.  His readiness to take revenge on his brother seems reasonable, especially in light of his second thoughts over the birthright encounter.  He gains enough insight to recognize that he blew it with his parents with his first marriages, and brings home as his third wife one of his Uncle Ishmael’s daughters.  Frankly, to me, none of it sounds so geferlach.  But the rabbis turn his love of hunting into a symptom of profligacy, and consider him a conniver, a wastrel, and clearly not up to the task of carrying on and carrying out the covenant.  Finally, the text gives us Jacob, the tent dweller, who plays hardball over the birthright and outright swindles the blessing, and whose concern is only with getting caught out, not with whether he’s doing the right thing.  But the rabbis have to justify Jacob, to make him worthy of becoming Israel.  So they tell us what Jacob was doing when he was dwelling in those tents – he was studying Torah at the yeshiva!  In all candor, the text doesn’t give him a pass.  In return for deceiving Isaac and swindling Esau, he will later be swindled by Laban and deceived over the disappearance of Joseph.  Ish tam yoshev ohalim.  Is Jacob simple, plain, innocent, wholesome, quiet, homespun, mild, perfect, or your favorite translation for tam?  Or is he a submissive mama’s boy? A clever opportunist with an eye always out for the main chance? What do you think he was really doing in those tents?  And what color is his yarmulke?  Aleh Toldot.  This is the chronicle of your family!  Who are the relatives you’re proud of?  Which are the good guys and which are the bad guys?  Do you want to believe the text, or the Tradition, or do you want to read between the lines in your own way?  And finally, to what extent does answering these questions depend on the language or the translation through which you encounter your ancestors, the Isaacs?

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2 Responses to “Talking Toldot”

  1. Monica Says:

    Thank you for this interesting take on this family, and for the linguistic insights.

    The tradition certainly blackens Eisav’s hat and whitens Ya’akov’s; a plain reading is much more ambiguous, as you point out. I hadn’t considered Ya’akov as “tam” before. He might be in the blessings incident, but how should we read the birthright incident in that case? Ya’akov seems to be an opportunist with — dare I say it — pretty unwholesome morals.

    On the other hand, he got swindled pretty thoroughly by Lavan, which doesn’t make him sound too clever. Here’s an idea, purely out of my head and not backed by sources: could his encounter with God have swung the pendulum, from swindler to tam before finally settling in the middle 20 years later?

  2. Harpooner Says:

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Harpooner.

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