“A Lesson from Jacob and Esau: Understanding and Accepting Differences”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we find some of the most fascinating material that touches upon the depths of parent-parent and parent-child relationships. It may very well be one of the greatest treasure troves of information concerning child development and education and parental relationships anywhere in human literature.

The Torah, as I will illustrate, pulls no punches when describing the relationship between Isaac and Rebecca and their children, Esau and Jacob. As with all the matriarchs, Rebecca too has difficulty bearing children. According to tradition, Isaac struggles in prayer for 20 long years before G-d finally responds and Rebecca conceives.

Scripture describes Rebecca’s pregnancy (Genesis 25:22): “Va’yitro’tze’tzu habanim b’kirba,” and the children struggled in her body. This verse seems to indicate that the struggle for dominance between Jacob and Esau already began in the womb. Rebecca inquires of G-d to know why she is experiencing so much pain. She is told, “Sh’nai goyim b’vit’naich,” two nations are in thy womb and two peoples shall be separated from your inwards. And one people shall be stronger than the other, and the elder will serve the younger.

The commentator Rashi, quoting the Midrash, says that the cause of Rebecca’s pain was due to the fact that whenever Rebecca passed a house of Torah study, Jacob wanted to jump out of his mother’s womb, and whenever Rebecca passed a sports arena or gym, Esau wanted to jump out. Clearly the scriptural text and the commentaries underscore that these two children were very, very different by nature–-confirmed by the Torah’s description of their birth.

When the twin boys are born, the first comes out completely red and hairy, and is called Esau. The second child comes out with his hand grasping the heel of his brother, and is named Jacob. Scripture then tells us in Chapter 25, verse 27, “Va’yig’d’lu ha’n’arim“, and the boys grew up. The Torah narrative proceeds to tell us immediately how different the boys were from one another. Esau was a man who knew hunting, a man of the field, while Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents. Then, in one of the most revealing verses of scripture, verse 28, the Torah tells us, “Va’yeh’hav Yitzchak et Eisav, ki tzayid b’fiv, v’Rivkah ohe’vet et Yaacov.” And Isaac loved (past tense) Esau, because he provided hunt for him to eat, and Rivka loves (present tense, continuous present) Jacob. This verse tells us that Isaac’s love for Esau, past tense, was utilitarian–Esau fed Isaac food. While Rivka’s love for Jacob was unconditional, no reason was given, and no reason needed to be given. She loved him because of who he was–-Yaacov!

We see here, of course, not only the differences in the children, but the differences in the parent’s attitudes toward the children. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing which came first.

How do we even begin to understand this complicated family situation? It is possible to suggest that everything was preordained and that Jacob was destined to be Jacob, and Esau destined to be Esau. After all, that is what G-d told Rebecca: There will be a struggle, and the older child will serve the younger one.” Nevertheless, one of the great recent commentators on the Bible, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, seems to indicate that despite the heavenly prophecy, and despite the children’s genetic differences in temperament, it is the parents’ primary responsibility to cope with those differences. Had Samson Raphael Hirsch not stated this explicitly in his commentary, I certainly would not have the temerity to suggest this. Listen to his forceful language: “Ours sages… never objected to draw attention to the small and great mistakes and weaknesses in the history of our great forefathers, and thereby make them just the more instructive for us. Here too, on [the verse] ‘When the boys grew up,’ [the sages] make a remark which is indeed a signpost for all of us. They point out that the striking contrast in the grandchildren of Abraham may have been due, not so much in the difference in their temperaments, as to mistakes in the way that they were brought up.” Hirsch goes on to point out that as long as the boys were little, there was no attention paid to the innate differences in their natures. Both were given the exact same teaching and educational treatment. The great law of education, elucidated in Proverbs 22:6, Chanoch La’na’ar al Pee dar’ko, bring up each child according with its own way, was forgotten!

Hirsch proceeds to highlight the striking difference between Isaac and Jacob in dealing with and educating children. In contrast to Isaac, when father Jacob saw the 12 tribes before him, his different sons standing around his bed, he saw each of them for who they each were, “Ish k’vir’cha’to berach otam, each according to his blessing, and his specialty, with his different path of life did he bless them. Says Hirsch, “To try to bring up a Jacob and an Esau in the same college, make them have the same habits and hobbies, want to teach and educate them in the same way for some studious, sedate, meditative life, is the surest way to court disaster.” And finally, suggests Hirsch, that despite “their totally different natures, Jacob and Esau could still have remained twin brothers, in spirit and life; quite early in life, ‘Esau’s sword’ and ‘Jacob’s spirit’ could have worked hand in hand. And who can say what a different aspect the whole history of the ages might have presented.” But by the time the children had grown up it was too late to attend to the differences.

The Jewish people have paid a stiff price for this educational misstep. Esau eventually becomes the progenitor of Amalek, the determined foe of the Jewish people. Oh, if we had only allowed for the differences in education, Jewish history would have been most different. There would have been no archenemy in the form of Esau and no Amalek!

This theme repeats itself often in biblical literature. The Torah tells us that the grandmother of Amalek is a woman named Timnah. According to tradition, Timnah desperately wanted to marry into the family of Abraham but was rejected because of some question of whether her birth was honorable or not. Eventually, because of her great desire to cling to the descendants of Abraham, she becomes a concubine to Esau’s son and bears Amalek. Is scripture telling us that Amalek is a result of our rejection? In a second instance, the commentators seem to suggest that Dina, Jacob’s daughter, could have saved Esau from his evil ways, but Jacob was too afraid to expose her to him.

Similarly, in the Book of Ruth, we encounter Orpah, the daughter-in-law of Naomi, who is sent home by Naomi to her Moabite family. According to tradition, the great enemy of the Jewish people, Goliath, descends from Orpah.

What a frightening message. Do we Jews bring on our own destruction by rejecting those who wish to embrace us? By saying in some way that we are too holy, too pure, or too good to be contaminated by the likes of outsiders. Is it because we are not prepared to share the beauty of our tradition with those who sincerely come to embrace us that we ultimately suffer great devastation and destruction?

I don’t believe that a clear answer can be drawn from here, but there seems to be a very strong case arguing for that conclusion. Certainly we need to continue studying this issue so that we’ll be sensitive and alert enough in the future to embrace those who are truly sincere. G-d forbid we reject someone who should really be part of the Jewish people. If they are different from us, then we need to educate them differently, but we dare not reject them.

May you be blessed.