“Isaac’s Unconditional Love for Esau”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we read of the birth of Esau and Jacob. Isaac was 60 years old when his wife, Rebecca, gave birth to twin boys after a difficult labor.

The Torah, in Genesis 25:27, highlights the different natures of the twins as they grew older: וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים, וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד אִישׁ שָׂדֶה, וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים , The lads grew up and Esau became one who knows hunting, a man of the field; but Jacob was a wholesome man, abiding in tents. This verse is understood by the commentators to mean that Esau was a hunter, while Jacob was a scholar who lived in the tents and, presumably, studied Torah.

In a particularly revealing verse concerning the relationships in Isaac’s home, the Torah, in Genesis 25:28 states, וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת עֵשָׂו כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו, וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת יַעֲקֹב , And Isaac loved Esau for game was in his mouth; but Rebecca loved Jacob. As we have noted previously (Toledot 5760-1999), this verse reveals much about the relationship between the parents and their twin sons. It underscores that Isaac loved (past tense) Esau for utilitarian purposes–because Esau fed his father venison. Rebecca, on the other hand, loves (a continuous present form of the verb) Jacob. No reason is given. She loves Jacob because he is Jacob, just a wonderful child.

While it is always easier to focus on the good child, our commentators expend much effort trying to understand the challenging and difficult Esau.

A fascinating Midrash found in Exodus Rabbah 1:1, states that while yet young, Esau abandoned the good path. However, because Isaac loved Esau so much, he spared the rod and refused to reprove the child. Instead of this gentle approach bringing Esau closer to his father, it distanced Esau, to the extent that Esau subtly desired his father’s death. When describing Esau’s hatred toward Jacob for stealing his blessing from Isaac, the Torah (Genesis 27:41) reveals that Esau thought to himself, “May the days of mourning for my father draw near, then I will kill my brother, Jacob.”

While the unconditional love that Isaac showed Esau did not positively impact on his son, as Isaac had hoped, Isaac’s relationship with Jacob was quite different. According to tradition, Isaac would study Torah with Jacob in the house of study, and would reprove Jacob when necessary, fulfilling the dictum of Proverbs 13:24, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves his child brings him closer with discipline.” The commentators explain that wise parents do not overlook their children’s faults, but exercise disciplinary measures that would hopefully correct those faults.

Some of the commentators are troubled by the fact that the “holy” Isaac loved his wicked son, Esau, simply because Esau fed him meat. Finding this interpretation difficult, the rabbis (Tanchuma 27:8) explain this to mean that Esau would “trap” his father with his words. Esau would deceive his father, Isaac, into thinking that he was righteous, by asking Isaac all sorts of sophisticated religious questions concerning the laws of tithing salt.

The Talmud, in Tractate Sabbath 89b, records that in the future, the Al-mighty will confront all three patriarchs, and say to them, “Your children have sinned.” Both Abraham and Jacob will say to the Al-mighty, “If that is the case, wipe them [the Children of Israel] off the face of the earth, for the sanctification of Your name!” On the other hand, when the Al-mighty criticized Isaac, telling him that his children had sinned against G-d, Isaac will say, “Sovereign of the Universe! Are they my children and not Your children? Do You not call them, ‘My sons’?”

Isaac proceeds to argue with G-d that during the average life span of 70 years, there is really very little accountable sinning. Isaac notes that until age 20 a person is not punished for misdeeds. Of the remaining 50 years, 25 years of nights must be subtracted, for a sleeping person does not sin. Another twelve and a half years are allotted to prayer, eating and taking care of bodily needs. Thus, only twelve and a half years of sins remain. “You, G-d,” said Isaac, “Should be able to handle those twelve and a half years. If not, let’s share, half will be my responsibility and the other half Yours. If you say that they should all be upon me, please recall that I offered myself up before You as a sacrifice at the Akeida, and in that merit all the sins should be forgiven.”

At that moment the people of Israel cried out, “You, Isaac, are our [true] father. You are our father.” Isaac protested, “No, G-d is our Father and our Redeemer, everlasting is His name.”

A story is told that the great Rabbi Chaim of Chernovitz, had a son who left the religious fold. Reb Chaim, nevertheless, embraced his son and supported him with food and clothing, taking care of all his needs, and fulfilling all of his requests with love.

Every morning, the rabbi would humbly open his prayers before the Creator of the World and cry: “Master of the World, look at what I am doing with my son. Although he fails to walk in the righteous path, nevertheless, I treat him generously and with loving-kindness, and I am but flesh and blood. You, our merciful Father, are a kind Deity, Who has infinite loving-kindness, should You not behave in a like manner toward Your children, Israel. Even though they may not fulfill Your wishes, nevertheless, You should have mercy on them, like a father on a son. Al-mighty G-d have mercy on us, and invoke Your Divine influence to fulfill all our needs. Should You not, Al-mighty G-d, learn from an insignificant person like me how to treat Your children?”

The patriarch Abraham chased his son, Ishmael, from his home. Father Jacob was not faced with a prodigal child. Isaac alone showed unconditional love, so that in the end of days, he would be able to challenge the Al-mighty, and bring merit to all the Children of Israel.

Many parents face the often maddening challenges of nurturing children. We must all learn from Isaac not to embarrass them, not to put them down, and surely not to send them away. As difficult as it may be, we must embrace them, support them, clothe them and care for them with abundant love. Hopefully, in this manner, they will return, and we, as parents, will derive great pleasure from them and their good and noble deeds.

May you be blessed.