“Lessons in Child Rearing from the Patriarch Jacob”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, Jacob’s life draws to a close. Jacob insists that his son, Joseph, not bury him in Egypt, and elicits a promise that he be buried in the land of Canaan. Before he passes on, Jacob blesses his grandchildren, Ephraim and Menashe, as well as each one of his twelve sons. The parasha closes with Jacob’s burial in Canaan and the death of Joseph.

With the passing of Jacob, the patriarchal era of Jewish history draws to a close. The fact that the Torah devotes seven full parashiot to the life of Jacob and his offspring, as opposed to only three weekly Torah portions to relate the stories of Abraham and Isaac, underscores the impactful role that Jacob is to play in Jewish history.

Abraham is the great trailblazer who introduces the concept of monotheism to the world. Isaac is the patriarch who ensures that the Jewish people take hold of the land of Canaan. But it is Jacob, and Jacob alone, who sires the “Children of Israel.” Only Jacob has twelve children who are completely and totally devoted to the G-d of Israel.

Despite the incredible turmoil in Jacob’s home, each of Jacob’s children remains faithful to the Jewish people and to the concept of Jewish nationhood. There is no equivalent of an Ishmael or an Esau who comes forth from Jacob’s loins. The commentators on the verse in Genesis 35:22 confirm the righteousness of all of Jacob’s children. The verse states: “Va’yeeh’you v’nay Yaakov sh’nayim ah’sar,” the sons of Jacob were twelve. Rashi cites the rabbis who say that this verse comes to teach that all of Jacob’s sons were equal, all righteous and that even Reuben’s act of switching Jacob’s bed was not sinful (Shabbat 55b).

It is rather surprising to note that each of patriarchal homes is ridden with turmoil. Abraham’s home was suffused with a terrible rivalry between Sarah and Hagar, which leads Hagar to run away from Sarah, and eventually results in the expulsion of Hagar and her son, Ishmael. In Isaac’s home, the deception of Isaac by both his wife Rebecca and his son Jacob concludes with the bone-chilling threat from Esau to kill his brother Jacob for stealing his birthright and his blessings. But certainly, nothing compares to the turmoil in the house of Jacob, where ten brothers are prepared to kill their own sibling Joseph, and, as a result of the brothers’ actions, their father Jacob sits in mourning and depression for over 22 years, longing for his lost child.

Yet, of all the patriarchs, only Jacob eventually sees nachat (joy and satisfaction) from all his children, and from his grandchildren, as well. Although the family life of Jacob seems to be a case study in how not to raise children, they all emerge united as the “Sons of Israel.”

Consequently, it is worthwhile to examine scripture to look for clues about what Jacob did, or what Jacob believed in, that led to his ultimate success in child rearing. However, rather than look at Jacob’s values at the beginning of his family life, when he overtly favored one child over the others, it seems more appropriate to look at Jacob’s values at the end of his life.

Our rabbis apparently find a clue in the scriptural description of Jacob blessing his grandchildren, Ephraim and Menashe. In Genesis 48:14, the Torah states: “Va’yish’lach Yisrael et y’mee’no, va’yah’shet ahl rosh Ephraim, v’hoo ha’tzah’eer, v’et s’mo’lo ahl rosh Menashe, see’kayl et yah’dahv, kee Menashe ha’b’chor,” And Israel extended his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and his left hand on Menashe’s head. He knowingly switched his hands, for Menashe was the firstborn.

In Jewish tradition the hand is often regarded as the primary organ for carrying out the wishes of the brain. But it is also seen as a means of transmitting the Divine spirit, such as when it is used for ordination, consecration and for blessing others.

The rabbis see in Jacob’s use of both his right and his left hands a homiletical message on how to raise young people. The Talmud in Masechet Smachot 2:5 cites Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar who says that young children should be brought close with the right hand, and pushed away with the left. This implies that the proper method of educating children should be to instill the qualities of both love and reverence in a child.

The Slonimer Rebbe (Grand Rabbi Shalom Noah Brozovsky, Jerusalem, 1911-2000, author of Nesivos Shalom), whose insights have become very popular today, writes in his powerful educational pamphlet, Nesivei Chinuch, that communicating love and caring is the hallmark of a good parent as well as an effective teacher. Setting clear limits and teaching accountability is the sign of a good pedagogue. One must not allow the sense of closeness and caring to lead to disrespect, nor may one allow harshness and strictness to lead to a sense of lack of love. When disciplining one’s students or one’s children, one must do so in a way that the temporary distancing will not be seen as a lack of love. A teacher must always make certain that students know that they are still loved.

One of the great challenges of disciplining is dealing with children who are annoying and aggravating. If the teacher cannot maintain the delicate balance between love and reverence, it is always better to err on the side of giving too much love, rather than engendering too much fear. Without love between the parent and child, teacher and student, successful child rearing and education is simply not possible.

This is an important lesson for all to learn. And who can teach it better than the father of twelve loyal sons!?

May you be blessed.