"These are the generations of Yitzchak son of Avraham, Avraham begot Yitzchak." (25, 19)
This dual description that begins Parshat Toldot is curious, and attracted the attention of commentators throughout the ages, each attempting to explain the why this obvious statement is inverted and repeated. If Yitzchak is the son of Avraham then Avraham is his father. This superfluous description is even more noticeable when the description of Yitzchak's relation to Avraham is compared to the description of Yishmael a few verses earlier. (25, 12)
We will explore three midrashic approaches to understanding the repetition in this verse. First, as Shmot Rabba explains:
"'These are the generations of Yitzchak the son of Avraham...' To teach you that he was like his father in every thing, established in wisdom, wealth, and good deeds." (Shmot Rabba, Parsha 1)
This midrash explains that Avraham and Yitzchak were strikingly similar. These similarities were more than just skin deep; Yitzchak also inherited his father's wisdom and unique character, and both were guided by God's blessing. When the verse jumps from Yitzchak to Avraham and back again it feels as though we are looking at the two of them, our gaze moving from one to the other, back and forth, astounded by the similarity.
A second approach sees these descriptions as a badge of honor worn by both father and son. At a certain point Avraham became known as Yitzchak's father; it consumed his identity. At the same time Yitzchak took pride in the fact that Avraham was his father.
"'The crown of the elderly is their children's children.' (Mishlei) Fathers are a crown to their children and the children are a crown to their fathers. Fathers are a crown to their children as it says, 'And fathers are the glory of their children.' And children are a crown to their fathers as it says, 'The crown of the elderly is their children's children.'" (Bereishit Rabba Toldot, Parsha 63, 2)
This midrash continues and expands on the ideas of parentage and patronage. It explains that, from a broader perspective, Avraham's existence is only justified by the birth of Yitzchak and his children.
"Rabbi Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak said: Avraham was only saved from the fiery furnace by the merit of Yaakov... Another explanation, 'The crown of the elderly is their son's sons' - 'And these are the generations of Yitzchak son of Avraham.'" (ibid)
A third midrash reads the verse without the proper punctuation in order to focus on another aspect of this relationship:
"'These are the generations of Yitzchak...' Yitzchak was called Avraham, "These are the generations of Yitzchak son of Avraham, Avraham...'"
According to this midrash Yitzchak was also called Avraham, based on its reading of the verse which ignores both the punctuation and the continuation of the verse, that Avraham 'begat Yitzchak.' This misreading makes it seem like Yitzchak is Avraham. The midrash then continues to describe how Yaakov was known as Yisrael and Avraham was also called Yisrael, essentially demonstrating that Yitzchak and his son Yaakov- really all of Yisrael- is an Abrahamic presence in this world.
These three midrashim typify three different approaches to the relationship between generations. The first midrash points out the similarities between the generations, the second highlights intergenerational development, and the third speaks of shared identity. These three approaches span generations and continue to this day.
The different understandings in these midrashim could be seen as the result of formal hermeneutic tools. In halachic language the structure of this verse is one of klal u'prat- a generalization ('These are the generations of Yitzchak son of Avraham') and a specific detail ('Avraham begat Yitzchak.') In this case this structure indicates that the klal includes the prat that follows, which leads us to the midrashim that explain this verse as reflective of the development between the generations.
Yet this structure can aslo be seen as a klal u'prat u'klal ( generalization 'These are the generations,' specific detail 'Yitzchak son of Avraham,' generalization- 'Avraham begat Yitzchak'), in which case the generalization and the detail are one in the same, which leads us to the midrash that identifies Avraham with his descendants.
Of course the approach that highlights the similarity between the generations has scientific proof- genetic material is passed on from one generation to the next and these traits are expressed both internally and externally. Obviously changes take place from one generation to the next; many traits are decided by complex relationships between multiple genes, plus children inherit genetic material from both their parents. Yet when all is said and done the possibilities are preloaded, limited by the inherited genetic material. Which means that everyone in the world today is really just the new face of a genetic variation on what already existed at the beginning of the human race. Philosophically speaking every new generation is just a variation or paraphrasing of earlier generations. We can choose to see the similarity instead of the differences. This choice can be seen as a statement about the connection between the generations- each one is obligated to the same systems of rules, each inherits the same myths, and each is bound by the same human ethos.
The approach that focuses on development is often connected to Darwinian theory; this approach points out that the meaning of a life does not end with death. The impact of that life continues to unfold in the world as everything that was created by their existence develops on into new lives, people and characters that will create and make new discoveries in the world.
This principle creates a moral system where each generation is obligated to preserve nature and the source of life for future generations. At the same time each subsequent generation feels dwarfed by the strength and mighty deeds of the generations that have preceded it, the latent power they held. As Rabbi Yishayah miTrani described it, we feel like dwarves compared to our predecessors. The only reason that we merit to enter into the conversations they started and make our own mark on the world is that we are "dwarves on the shoulders of giants."
"... So we are dwarves riding on the necks of giants, for we have seen their wisdom and we deepen it, and the wisdom we have to say everything we say is from the strength of their wisdom, and not that we are greater than them." (Shibolei Haleket, 475)
The additional height he describes is the height of development.
The third approach describes the possibility of identification, it reflects the feeling of repetition- the challenges are unending, existential questions remain, and there is nothing new under the sun. Avraham is Avraham. Yitzchak is Avraham. Avraham is Yaakov. And the converse is true as well.
While these descriptions of intergenerational relationships may relate specifically to this epic time in history, they remain true for each generation, in the simple feelings that each one of us feels about their relationships with their parents and children. We feel that we have a shared fate- one that is eternal; and while we feel that there is much that we share and much that is similar, we are also aware of the differences and developments.
Note: All of Rabbanit Tikochinsky’s parsha commentaries are stored on the LSS web site. To access them, please visit www.lss.org/beitmorasha. You are also welcome to forward the link to people who are outside the LSS community and who may otherwise not have access to her columns.