By Rabbi Alana Suskin
A number of people are credited with the saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” One hallmark of Parshat Toldot is repetition.
Toldot contains the majority of Isaac’s life story, and it seems a bit like “Groundhog Day.” There is a repeat of the famine that struck in Abraham’s time; the blessings God gives Isaac are affirmations of the promises God gave to Abraham; Isaac’s wife poses as his sister like Abraham’s wife Sarah did.
Why is Isaac’s life such a close echo of that of his father?
The 18th-century Chasidic rabbi R. Menachem Nachum Twersky notes a principle of the sages: Where the text begins with “eleh” it is going to say something new, and where it says “v’eleh” it will add to what came before. Parshat Toldot begins with Isaac, which is new, and yet it begins with “v’eleh.”
He suggests that the previous verses allude to the kabbalistic notion of God creating the world multiple times, destroying each creation until creating the current world. Similarly, Isaac wasn’t the “first creation,” but stands symbolically for the creation with which God finally settled.
In this metaphor, the Torah hints that the previous “toldot” were imperfect and needed to be lifted up. He cites a related midrash that says the world was built through love (Psalms 89:3). But God’s love by itself is too intense for humans to be able to tolerate it. And so God was obliged to join justice to love in order for the world to endure. In this way, he concludes, God’s joining of justice to love was itself an act of love.
There is a parallel between the world and the individual: Anyone who wishes to walk in God’s ways must have an internal structure of justice to contain that love.
Abraham represents love, uncontained. It isn’t until Isaac is born that the world is balanced with justice, which allows God’s love to be channeled and absorbed in the human world.
In psychology, there’s the notion of a repetition compulsion: A person will repeat a traumatic event or relationship until they are able to come to terms with it and repair it. Many Jewish mystics viewed the Torah as a sort of psychological diary of God. If we view Abraham and Isaac as symbols of the respective attributes of love and justice, then we can think of Parshat Toldot as God exploring earlier destructions of the world.
We live in a time when we long for love and are starved for justice. What we must come to understand is that these qualities cannot be separated if the world is to endure.
Rabbi Alana Suskin is co-director of the Pomegranate Initiative.