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Torah Commentary
Vayeishev (December 17, 2011)

Benjamin J. Zeidman, Assistant Rabbi

THE HEBREW WORD toldot appears in our Torah from time to time. It is even the name of a parashah. However, this week, it’s giving me a little bit of trouble.

Genesis 37:2 begins eleh toldot Ya’akov, and the problem is how we should go about translating it. Typically when we see toldot in the Hebrew Bible (although not always), it signifies the beginning of a list of names and is appropriately translated in these circumstances as “generations” or “descendants.” In these cases we expect the word “begat” to follow not too far thereafter! This one begot that one who begot that one; it is a long list of generations that allows us, the readers, to go on to the next character while maintaining the connection to the previous on.

That is not the case in our situation this week. And if we look at different Bible translations, then we will see how the mere act of translation is a subjective one.
In different Bibles, the first words of Genesis 37:2 are:
• “These are the generations of Jacob” (JPS, KJV, ESV)
• “This, then, is the line of Jacob” (TNK)
• “This is the history of the family of Jacob” (RSV)
• “Here is the history of Ya’akov” (CJB)
• “This is the story of the family of Jacob” (NRS)
• “This is the family history of Jacob” (Stern, URJ Plaut Commentary)

What follows is not a list of the descendants of Jacob, as we would expect, but instead is simply the story of Joseph. This strange wording is not ignored by the Rabbis of B’reishit Rabbah (ca. 450 CE [1]). They point out that Joseph is described here as the sole descendant of Jacob very purposefully, because everything that happened to Jacob happened to Joseph. (B’reishit Rabbah 84:6)

What are the similarities? According to the Rabbis, both Jacob and Joseph: Both were born circumcised, both had mothers who were thought to be infertile, both had mothers who bore two children, both gave their mothers trouble during labor, both were hated by their brothers, both had brothers who sought to kill them, both were shepherds. Words used in their stories are the same: Both spent time outside of the Land of Israel, both were married to women from outside the Land of Israel, both had children outside the Land of Israel, both are made great because of dreams, both die in Egypt… and the list goes on.

Here we have a perfect example of the complexities of Torah and how the Rabbis step in to expand upon the text to help make sense of it. With a potentially confusing molehill, they create a mountain of knowledge, wisdom and scholarship. These little bits of complication in the text — and we know there are a lot of them — are beautiful opportunities. This is why we can say that Torah is so beautiful.

[1] H.L. Strack and Gunter Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1996.


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