Parshat Toldot

“Continuity and Discontinuity”

By Rabbi Cheryl Weiner, PhD, BCC


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, one of our contemporary sages, asks the question how can we ensure that we have Jewish grandchildren? In this week’s portion, which begins with the word toldot, “generations,” our ancestors might have asked the same question. Rivkah, Isaac’s wife, received a revelation that ripped apart her family: the younger twin would rule the older. Thus, Jacob would inherit the covenant handed down from Abraham; and Esau would be disinherited by the tradition as an outsider.


As the story unfolds, we are given two accounts of how Esau seems not to value his birthright or tradition. In the second, Jacob is sent off to the family enclave in Haran to marry to escape Esau’s wrath at losing his birthright and blessing to Jacob.

When Esau overhears Isaac’s message to Jacob, to marry within the clan, Esau realizes that his marriage to Canaanite wives contributed to his downfall and has upset his father. He then marries into Ishmael’s clan, thereby hoping to bring the family together. Thus, symbolically, Esau becomes the outsider in the tradition; someone who marries “out.”  Jacob becomes the insider; someone who marries “in.”


The challenges that face Judaism as a religion and a civilization are manifested by this concept of marrying “in” and marrying “out,” the former representing a separatist way of life, the latter assimilation. Both pathways offer enormous opportunities as well as pitfalls.


Data analyses such as the PEW Report or the recent Miami-Dade Demographic Study, offer us data that highlights rates of intermarriage. Many bemoan the demise of the Jewish community in those numbers. However, in other venues like the Forward and Haaretz, journalists are reporting the remarkable contributions of interfaith partners to synagogue life and institutions. Within these statistics and reports is a hidden reality.  Judaism faced a similar situation during the Hellenism of the Second Temple period, and reconstituted Judaism as the ancients knew it into a new Judaism formulated by the rabbinic sages.


Judaism as a religion and Jews as a civilization have survived into modernity by our ability to transcend assimilation through adaptation. We adapt to the universal in our surrounding culture and values through preserving Judaism’s continuity with the past while recognizing its discontinuities in the present. As a famous Talmudic story recounts, when Moses was brought into Rabbi Akiva’s yeshivah, he didn’t recognize its Judaism. If we were to be brought into the Judaism of the future, would we recognize it?


While adapting to the universal, we also preserve the particular which comes with the traditional expression of Jewish observance and rituals.  Do we not relish a Jewish wedding and resonate with a freilich Shabbat? And appreciate the silence of an Orthodox neighborhood on Shabbat, without the noise and bustle of traffic and commerce?  Can we not appreciate about our cultural and religious diversity through a Henna wedding ritual or a mechitzah?


In reading this week’s portion, we can choose to accept the gifts given by the son who received the birthright of continuity and the one who received the blessing of discontinuity. Our challenge will be to recognize and accommodate to the “others” within and without our familial and national boundaries and relationships, forging a Judaism that can encompass both assimilation and separation, that can embrace the universal as well as the particular, the Esau and Jacob among us. Our challenge is to have Jewish grandchildren who preserve and project a vibrant Judaism into the future.

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