What Will You Contribute to the World?

hero image
08 Oct 2018

Several weeks ago, I wrote about some of my struggles in attempting to balance shul-going with bearing, birthing, and/or caring for young children. I received feedback from, and was thrilled to engage in some wonderful, thoughtful discussions with, several readers who suggested that if only today’s mothers would accept the maternal role G-d gave us, we would be happy staying home from shul. Broadening the conversation beyond shul attendance, some also suggested reasons that some mothers might not be fully satisfied in our maternal roles: “Ego,” said one. “Pressure to do it all,” said others.

I’d like to consider some of those suggestions through the lens of a question Rashi addresses about the Torah’s introduction to Noach. This question struck me, years ago, as being a little strange, but Rashi also offers an answer which ultimately can solve that oddity, shed light on the entire flow of the Torah’s narrative – and perhaps offer insight into our individual lives and goals.

Noach is first mentioned as part of the list of Shet’s descendents in chapter 5, and then after describing the corruption of humanity and G-d’s decision to destroy them all, we are told “but Noach found favor in the eyes of G-d” (6:8). The next verse offers a more formal introduction to this favorable individual:

ט  אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ–נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו:  אֶת-הָאֱלֹקִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹחַ.  י  וַיּוֹלֶד נֹחַ שְׁלֹשָׁה בָנִים–אֶת-שֵׁם אֶת-חָם וְאֶת-יָפֶת.

9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted; Noah walked with God.  10 And Noah begot three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

(Text and 1917 JPS translation from www.mechon-mamre.org)

Rashi doesn’t tell us his question, but based on his answers (which we will explore below), he is apparently bothered by the description of Noach between the introductory phrase “These are the generations of Noach” and the list of Noach’s children in verse 10. Why interrupt between the heading of a list and the list itself?

This question becomes even stronger if we pay attention to the (first) Hebrew word translated here as “generations”: toldot. The root of this word is vld, which is related to yeled – “child.” So a more precise translation might be “these are the children/descendents of Noach” – and we would certainly expect that phrase to be followed immediately by the names of Noach’s children.

Rashi’s question is also strengthened by the fact that elsewhere, we do find the phrase “these are the toldot of X” followed immediately by a list of X’s children/descendents. For instance, in 11:10, “These are the toldot of Shem: Shem was 100 years old and he begat Arpachshad two years after the Flood.” And even more succinctly further down the list of Shem’s descendents: “And these are the toldot of Terach: Terach begat Avram, Nachor, and Haran, and Haran begat Lot” (v. 27). No interruption!

So, what bothered me about what was bothering Rashi, if the question is such a good one? The realization that Noach’s case is not such an anomaly: while there are several instances of the phrase “These are the generations of X” that follow the expected structure, others interrupt before the list of names (as in the case of Noach) or don’t even list names at all, leaving us to wonder what “these” refers to and where the “toldot” are. Rashi was bothered by the case of Noach, but I was bothered by all of them!

For instance, the parsha named Toldot opens with “These are the toldot of Yitzchak, the son of Avraham; Avraham begat Yitzchak. And Yitzchak was 40 years old when he took Rivka, the daughter of Betuel… as a wife” (25:19). Certainly, there is a lot of genealogical information here, but it’s hardly the list a phrase like “these are the toldot” would lead us to expect – and as we read on, we continue to find not a list, but a story. Similarly, the introduction to toldot Yaakov is followed by pure narrative. Sure, the story is about Yaakov’s children, but the flow in the sentence “These are the toldot of Yaakov; Yosef was 17 years old, was a shepherd with his brothers…” (37:2) calls for some explanation.

Commentaries offer a variety of solutions for each of these cases. But perhaps, instead of trying to explain the exceptions to the rule, we could rethink the rule. Perhaps, instead of asking about the case of Noach’s toldot, or Yitzchak’s or Yaakov’s, we could rethink our understanding of the word “toldot,” and the function of the phrase “These are the toldot.”

I would like to offer an approach inspired by one of the answers I promised from Rashi, and by Rav Hirsch.

Rashi first suggests that the interruption reflects a practice of saying something good about a good person whenever one mentions the person’s name: “Since it mentioned him, it told of his praise, as it is said, ‘the memory of a righteous person is for blessing’ (Mishlei 10).” The interruption is indeed an interruption, and we can understand why it is inserted. After all, why not take every opportunity to remind people of a righteous person’s righteousness?

However, Rashi goes on to offer another explanation: “It teaches you that the ikar (essential, or primary) toldot of righteous people is maasim tovim.” (Excuse my awkward translation.) Here, the apparent interruption between the heading and the list is no interruption at all, but is actually the first item on the list: “These are the toldot of Noach: (1) His good character; (2) his three sons, i.e., Shem, Cham, and Yafet.”

Twenty (!) years ago, when my interest was first caught by the different usages of the phrase “These are the toldot,” I began to think about Rashi’s words, “ikar toldot.” I wondered if perhaps the same explanation could be applied to every case in which the Torah introduces us to someone’s toldot. Maybe it’s not about a list of children, but about the ikar toldot.

What are ikar toldot, and how is “ikar” measured? Rav Hirsch, several times in his commentary, explains the word “toldot” not as children but as “products”: what a person develops or produces in the world. It occurred to me more particularly that perhaps each introduction to “toldot” is highlighting that person’s most crucial contribution to the world in terms of the story the Torah wants to tell.

A full treatment of this would require a lot of space, but we can cover two examples in one if we compare the instances of Yitzchak and Yishmael. In each case, the very first thing the Torah highlights is their parentage – that they came from Avraham. That fact is at the root of Yitzchak’s chosenness and is the reason Yishmael has any place in the Torah’s story at all. Many have pointed out that Yitzchak’s primary role, his legacy in the development of the nation of Avraham, was simply to stand strong as the second generation: His ikar toldot was that he was in all ways his father’s son, that he married a woman with whom he could produce the next generation, and that the next generation’s story then continued. Yishmael, though also Avraham’s son, has another element central to his “toldot”: “These are the toldot of Yishmael, the son of Avraham, that Hagar, the Egyptian, Sarah’s maidservant, gave birth to for Avraham” (25:12). His primary contribution to the Torah’s story is as a foil to Yitzchak. Yishmael is the one who is not from Sarah, not the next link in the chain – but who, as Avraham’s son, also fathers a nation (Bereishit 21:13). The Torah continues with the rest of his “toldot,” an actual list of his descendants who became that nation, because in his case, that list is what we need to know about him before the Torah can move on to focus on Yitzchak.

If we consider each instance of “These are the toldot of X,” we can gain insight from what the Torah chooses to highlight at each major stop in telling the history of our nation. What is the primary legacy of Noach? Of his sons? Of Terach? Of Yaakov? Of Aharon and Moshe together (Bamidbar 3:1)? Sometimes it is, indeed, a list of the individual’s children; sometimes it is something else about them that constitutes the ikar of their contribution to the development of the Jewish people.

And if we consider this interpretation of “These are the toldot of X,” we might gain renewed insight into the many different types of “toldot” that might be at the center of our own lives and legacies.

There is, of course, much to say about “doing it all” or “having it all,” and how parents choose what to do when; indeed, the conversation has been ongoing since before I was born. I hope to share my own two cents (or three or four…) about the topic in general, and maybe more specific issues of shul attendance and the like, once I stop getting distracted by other topics. But for now, just this:

We all work on our own “toldot,” trying to build our own characters (the “ikar” mentioned by Rashi) as we contribute to the world in whatever way(s) we can. For some, the clear area of focus is on raising the next generation; others might contribute in that way, but will ultimately shine (also, or even more) in ways that have nothing to do with their children; and still others never have children, but certainly impact the world through their own brands of “toldot.”

We might not always know which elements of our lives are “ikar,” and maybe multiple contributions are all “ikar.” We can only make our best judgments, guided by Torah and by our personal inclinations and strengths and pulls.

I don’t believe it’s (necessarily) ego to want to do something someone else doesn’t think is as important as something else, nor does it (always) come from external pressure. Sometimes, it’s an inner pull telling us we were created, in part, to do this thing. It’s the realization that there is something inside me, which G-d blessed me with just as He blessed me with my four children, which must come out just like they did, and take its place in the world just as they will.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.