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A Legacy of Laughter

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Abraham named the son … whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac (“laughter”).

And Sarah said: “G-d has made laughter for me; all who hear shall laugh for me”

Genesis 21:3, 6

Then our mouths shall be filled with laughter, and our tongues with song

Psalms 126:2

The Torah is divided into 54 parashiyot (“sections” or “portions”), each of which is studied and publicly read in the synagogue on another week of the  year. Each parashah has a name, derived from its opening verses; yet no single rule determines which word or words are chosen to identify it. For example, the sections that begin with the words “And Korach took” and “And Balak saw” are named Korach and Balak respectively; but the section beginning “And Jacob went out” is called Vayeitzei (“and he went out”), and the section beginning “And Judah approached him” is called Vayigash (“and he approached”), rather than “Jacob” and “Judah.”

The Chassidic masters explain that each parshah name embodies a lesson that is connected to the primary theme of the section as a whole, and which is of eternal significance to every generation. Thus, each section receives the name that is most appropriate to it and which maximizes its relevance to our lives.[1]

A case in point is this week’s Torah reading, which is called Toledot(“chronicles” or “progeny”) after its opening words, “And these are the chronicles of Isaac.” But five weeks ago we read a Torah section that began “And these are the chronicles of Noah”—and that section is named Noach (“Noah”). Of course, the same name could not be given to two sections. But if the choice of the name Toledot were simply a factor of it being the first suitable word in a section’s opening verse, than the section of Noach should have been called Toledot, and our section, to distinguish it from that one, might have been called Yitzchak (“Isaac”). Obviously, then, there is something about the chronicles of Isaac that makes them a more fitting source for the parashah name “Toledot” than those of Noah.

The Beginning and the End

For Toledot is no mere word: it is a word that embraces the cosmos, spans the whole of history, and describes our purpose in life. After recounting G-d’s creation of the world in six days and His designation of a seventh as a day of rest, the Torah begins the story of man with the words: “These are the toledot of the heaven and the earth upon their creation…”[2]

Eighteen books and three thousand years later, the Torah concludes the Book of Ruth with the following verses:
And these are the toledot of Peretz: Peretz begot Chetzron, Chetzron begot Ram, Ram begot Aminadav, Aminadav begot Nachshon, Nachshon begot Salmah, Salmah begot Boaz, Boaz begot Oved, Oved begot Yishai, and Yishai begot David.

Says the Midrash:
The word toledot appears everywhere in the Torah with a deficient spelling (i.e., lacking the letter vav), except for two instances: “These are the chronicles of Peretz,” and [“These are the chronicles of the heaven and the earth upon their creation”]. Why are all the others lacking the letter vav? … Because of the six (vav)[3] things taken from Adam: his radiance, his life, his stature, the fruit of the earth, the fruit of the trees, and the luminaries…. For though the world was created perfect, these were ruined by Adam’s sin, and shall be restored only with the coming of [Moshiach,] the descendent of Peretz.[4]

The story of man is the journey from toledot to toledot, from the perfect world that G-d created to the restored perfection of the age of Moshiach.[5] In the simply stated words of Rashi, “The toledot of the righteous are their good deeds.”[6]

Noah and Isaac

The achievements of man come in two guises: the “chronicles of Noah” and the “chronicles of Isaac.”

The name “Noah” means “tranquility”; “Isaac” means “laughter.” Many dream of tranquility, and devote their lives to the goal of forging a tranquil world out of the chaos and strife that define its present existence. Indeed, “the Torah was given to make peace in the world”[7]—to knit its diverse forces and strivings into a harmonious mirror of the perfect harmony of its Creator.

But it can also be argued that the most tranquil existence is no existence; that if the goal of creation were tranquility, than this goal would have been equally (or better) served by not creating a world in the first place. Little wonder, then, that few of us derive any lasting satisfaction from tranquility. We want more from life than the absence of discord. We want joy; we want laughter in our lives.

Therein lies the ultimate purpose of creation: to make our world a source of joy to G-d and man.

So if there is to be a section in Torah named “Toledot,” it is Isaac’s toledot rather than Noah’s. If there is a “chronicle” that charts the saga of man and a “progeny” that sums up the fruit of his labors, it is a chronicle of joy and a progeny of laughter.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Toledot 5744 (1983)

 


[1]. See The Human Story in Twelve Words, WIR, vol. IX, no. 15.

[2]. Genesis 2:4.

[3]. In the Holy Tongue, each letter is also a number; the letter vavrepresents the number 6.

[4]. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 12:5.

[5]. See our essay Twins, to be published in the Vayeishev issue (#12) ofWeek In Review.

[6]. Rashi on Genesis 6:9.

[7]. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chanukah 4:14.

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