“A Lesson from Jacob and Esau: Understanding and Accepting Differences”
(Updated and revised from Toledot 5760-1999)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we encounter a fascinating narrative that touches upon the essence of parent-parent and parent-child relationships. It may very well be one of the greatest treasure-troves of wisdom regarding child development, education and parental relationships, anywhere in human literature.

The Torah pulls no punches when describing the relationship between Isaac and Rebecca, and their children Esau and Jacob. As with all the matriarchs, Rebecca has difficulty bearing children. According to tradition, cited by the famed commentator Rashi, on Genesis 25:26, Isaac and Rebecca pray for 20 long years before G-d finally responds, and Rebecca conceives.

Scripture (Genesis 25:22), describes Rebecca’s difficult pregnancy: וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ , and the children contended in her. This verse seems to indicate that the struggle for dominance between Jacob and Esau began already in utero. Rebecca inquires of G-d to know why she is experiencing so much pain. She is told (Genesis 25:23), שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ ,–two nations are in your 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.

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, says, that the reason for Rebecca’s pain was because 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 Rebecca’s pregnancy.

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 (Genesis 25:27) states: וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים , and the boys grew up.

The verse then immediately proceeds to describe, again, 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 a most revealing verse, the Torah states (Genesis 25:28), וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת עֵשָׂו כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו, וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת יַעֲקֹב , and Isaac loved (past tense) Esau, because he provided hunt for him to eat, and Rebecca loves (continuous, present tense) Jacob. This verse clearly indicates that Isaac’s love for Esau (past tense), was utilitarian–-Esau fed Isaac food. Rebecca’s love for Jacob, however, was unconditional, no reason is given, and no reason needs to be given. She loves him because of who he is–-Jacob!

We see here, of course, not only the differences in the children, but also the different attitudes of the parents regarding their children. Regrettably, we have no way of knowing which came first.

How do we even begin to understand these complicated family dynamics? It is possible to suggest that everything was preordained, and that Jacob was destined to be Jacob, and Esau was destined to be Esau. After all, that is what G-d told Rebecca (Genesis 25:23): “There will be a struggle, and the older child will serve the younger one.”

Nevertheless, one of the great contemporary commentators on the Bible, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, seems to indicate that despite the heavenly prophecy, and the children’s genetic differences in temperament, it is always the parents’ primary responsibility to address those differences. Had Rabbi 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:

Our 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 the difference in their temperaments, as to mistakes in the way that they were brought up.

Rabbi 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, pronounced in Proverbs 22:6, חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ , bring up each child according to its own way, was violated by Isaac and Rebecca!

Rabbi Hirsch then proceeds to highlight the striking difference between Isaac and Jacob in dealing with, and educating, children. In contrast to Isaac, when, Jacob, in his old age saw the 12 tribes, 12 different sons standing around his bed, he saw each of them for who they each were (Genesis 49:28), אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם , each according to his blessing and his specialty, with his different path of life did he bless them.

Says Rabbi 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.”

Moreover, suggests Rabbi 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 address the differences.

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

The theme of missteps made by the ancients, repeats itself often in biblical literature. The Torah (Genesis 36:12), states that the grandmother of Amalek, is a woman named Timnah. According to tradition, Timnah desperately wanted to marry into the family of Abraham, but she 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 her rejection?

In a second instance, the commentators (Rashi, citing the Midrash, Genesis 32:23), 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 Ruth 1:14, we encounter Orpah, the daughter-in-law of Naomi, who is sent home by Naomi to her Moabite family. According to tradition (Talmud Sotah 42b), the great enemy of the Jewish people, Goliath, descends from Orpah.

What a frightening thought. Have Jews brought on their own calamities by rejecting legitimate seekers who wish to embrace our people? Do the Jewish people feel that they are just too holy, too pure, or too good to be “contaminated” by the likes of outsiders? Is it because Jews have not been prepared to share the beauty of our tradition with those who sincerely come to embrace us, that we ultimately suffer great tragedy and destruction?

It is difficult to draw a definitive answer from these examples, but there seems to be a very strong case arguing toward that conclusion. Certainly, we need to carefully investigate this issue and become far more sensitive and alert, so that in the future we will be certain to embrace those who are truly sincere. G-d forbid that we reject those who are worthy of becoming part of the Jewish people. If they are different than us, then we need to educate them differently, but we dare not reject them.

May you be blessed.