A NEW DAY
Rabbi David Walk
People often ask me if I find it difficult coming up with new ideas every week. The truth is that I rarely have any trouble at all. However, it's really nail biting, hair pulling time on those occasions when I do. I find the material in every Torah reading new and fresh every year. Now, it could be that I'm like the dementia patient who meets everybody all over again everyday. But I'd like to think that something more profound is going on. It appeals to me to think that it's like Rashi, who lived in the 11th century, said to his grandson, the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1158). At the beginning of this week's parsha, he records that he discussed matters of Torah commentary with his grandfather and this is what Rashi said to his daughter's son, in his old age. He explained that if he had the time, he felt the need to write new commentaries to the Torah. And this is his phrase, according to the new literal insights that he had every single day. This is Rashi, towards the end of his life, having written the greatest of all commentaries to the Torah, never gave up trying to say something new. There was no thought of sitting on his laurels. Now the point of the Rashbam was the superiority of literal explanations over allegorical ones, but I'd like to explore the idea that new approaches to the Torah text are not only happening every day, but are necessary. However, first allow me a little digression.
The issue which prompted this unusual personal aside in the commentary of the Rashbam was the meaning of the word Toldot in the second verse of this week's Torah reading. The Rashbam is attacking the many authorities who understand that term which means offspring to be referring to the activities and accomplishments of Ya'akov. Well, the Rashbam says fuhgedaboutit. It means children, and the new story line is about the adventures of Ya'akov's sons surrounding the emergence of Yosef as the new protagonist in our text. According to the Rashbam, Rashi's regret about not having time to write a whole new commentary was not just that he had new thoughts, but that he would emphasize literal meanings over homiletics (you know, Rabbi stuff). Too many rabbinic sermons and fables had crept into the national consciousness, so that the literal meaning was often getting lost.
Here's my real question: This is at least the fifth time that the word Toldot appears in this manner in the Torah, why did the Rashbam wait until now to make this strong argument about how to interpret this term? My speculation is that this occasion reinforces the most amazing part of what his grandfather said. The story line in our text is not just the changing of the guard from Ya'akov to the sons, especially Yosef. He understood the meaning of the second dream in which even he was bowing down to Yosef. It's also about how quickly circumstances change. Reality is an ever changing kaleidoscope of totally unpredictable stuff. Ya'akov realizes that he no longer is the straw that stirs the drink. He also has trouble just following the flow of events. The verse tells us that he gave up trying to control the animosity between the brothers; he was just trying to monitor the situation (Genesis 37:11). Very soon even that fails. His attempt to keep an eye on things is thwarted by his beloved son's decades long disappearance.
Ya'akov describes his life to Pharaoh in this manner, 'the days of the years of my life have been few and miserable (47:9).' He was one hundred and thirty years old at the time. Why were his days so few? Ya'akov apparently was only counting the good days of which he felt there very few. I guess he subtracted all the days he was on the run and all the days during which Yosef was missing. Perhaps we can add to that the days that he was worried about his feuding sons and his ravaged daughter. It records in last week's parsha that he emerged from his encounter with his brother Esav 'whole,' and this week our Sages tell us that he wanted to live in peace and tranquility. But his completeness was short lived and his tranquility nonexistent. This is all true because there is no telling what the new day brings. We assume that tomorrow is the extension of today, and that our children are a continuation of us. Wow is that wrong! We say in our morning prayers that God renews the Creation each and every day. That is not only a reference to some mystical regeneration of the act of Genesis or the Big Bang, it also means that we must meet each new day on its terms. We can't take it for granted that yesterday equipped me for today. It's been famously said that generals are always preparing for the last war. Well, the same principle is true of businessmen, teachers, and parents, in other words, us. The only thing that I can expect is the unexpected.
This dichotomy is present in the first two verses of our parsha. In verse one Ya'akov is desperately trying to settle down peacefully in this land where his ancestors sojourned, but never found permanence. The second verse presents us with the reality that his toldot, offspring, are taking over, and there is no way of knowing in what direction the winds of change will blow us.
Since the world is ever changing, last year's situation has been over taken by this year's reality. Therefore, when I look at each week's Torah reading, it's from a new perspective. That's what makes it so easy to formulate new insights to the material. The rabbinic stories may remain the same from year to year but the message of the text is always fresh. Rashi is, like always, right; there are new literal insights every day, as long as we pay attention.
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