Mrs. Smiles - Toldos: Preferential Parenting 5771/2010

Parshas Toldos includes one of the most enigmatic verses about parenting in all of the Torah: “Isaac loved Esau for game was in his mouth, but Rebecca loves Jacob.” While trying to understand and interpret this verse, we must understand that we do so to glean lessons for our own lives, for we are not in a position to fully understand the motivations and reasoning behind the actions and thoughts of our great matriarchs and patriarchs. With this caveat in mind, we shall endeavor to gain some insights into the psyches of Yitzchak Avinu and Rivka Imenu from their interactions with their sons so that we can perhaps improve our own parenting and teaching skills in all our interpersonal relationships.

Rav Schwadron takes note of the immediately preceding verse that focuses on the twins and their contrasting persona and serves as an introduction to the parenting of Yitzchak and Rivka. “The lads grew up and Esau became a man who knows hunting, a man of the field, but Jacob was a wholesome (complete, truthful, etc.) man, abiding in tents.” Rav Schwadron questions the double use of “man” in speaking of Esau while the Torah uses the word “man” only once in speaking of Jacob. Using this point as the basis of his theory, he posits that Esau was in fact two different men. With his father and his family, he presented himself as a righteous person, learned in Torah. And he was indeed learned. To the outside world, however, Esau was a hunter, a man of the world, full of street smarts and deviousness. While Esau may have enjoyed the intellectual pursuit of Torah study with his father, he did not integrate the lessons of Torah into his active life. Therefore, says Halekach Vehalebuv, upon his death, the “Torah” part of Esau’s body, his head, rolled into the meorat hamachpelah and was buried with the righteous builders of the world. By contrast, Jacob was one man, the same wherever he was, integrating Torah into every aspect of his life.

As we continue to the next verse, our first approach to the parenting dilemma presented here follows the approach of Rav Nevenzal. While not faulting Yitzchak Avinu in any way, he posits that Yitzchak was indeed blinded to the true character of Esau because tzayid befiv, for Esau was such an expert hunter that he brought tender delicacies for his father to feast on. This food acted as a bribe, and blinded Yitzchak to reality. The lesson here for us, says Rav Nevenzal, is that we should not allow ourselves to be blinded to the true and correct Torah way by our own desires, often rationalized as the worthwhile end irrespective of the means, thereby permitting ourselves to indulge in our own desires counter to Torah perspective. Yitzchak finally recognized the truth about Esau when Esau came from the field with the food he had prepared in anticipation of his father’s blessing. Suddenly Yitzchak trembled at the realization that Esau’s entire approach to the Torah he had studied with his father was all a lie and a deception. We too must open our eyes to the deception inherent in many of our own desires and reasonings.

The Maharan Merabshitz, as cited in Maayanah shel Torah, agrees that Yitzchak Avinu was indeed unaware of Esau’s deception, but he explains the blindness as coming from a different source. He posits that indeed Yitzchak was a naïve man, a man so pure and untainted that he was an acceptable sacrifice to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Deception was so outside his experience, having grown up in the home of Avraham Avinu, that he took Esau’s questions at face value, as honest probing into the laws of Torah. Therefore, he loved Esau. Rivka, on the other hand, grew up in the same home as the deceitful Laban. She could not be fooled and understood Esau’s questions to be what they were, a way to curry favor with his father. While she loved him as a mother loves her child and she would have wished that he were truly righteous, she loves Yaakov and the legacy he will continue to foster.

Rabbi Frand offers an additional perspective into the personas of the two brothers. He explains that Esau defines himself in gentile terms, by what he does (for a living), while Yaakov defines himself by what he is in his essence, a talmid chochom. Based on these self evaluations, Yitzchak loved Esau for what Esau had accomplished. Should Esau’s expertise diminish, the esteem others hold him in will also diminish. But Rivka loves Yaakov for the essence of his character, the traits that will never change, and her love will therefore remain constant.

A second approach explores the possibility that Yitzchak was not fooled by Esau. He understood that each of his sons had a specific identifying trait. The Netivot Shalom interprets this passage in Kabalistic terms. He posits that Yitzchak understood that through his progeny, God’s attribute of splendor would be revealed. The two attributes that combine to form splendor are chessed and gevurah, loving kindness and strength (or awe). He recognized in Yaakov the attribute of chessed, of a man whose entire life would be devoted to enhancing God’s presence on earth through Torah learning, in relative seclusion. He saw in Esau the attribute of gevurah and hoped that this physicality would join with Yaakov’s spirituality to create the Splendor on earth. While Yaakov would remain in his tent, Esau would go out to the world and through interacting with others according to Torah guidelines, he would bring God’s presence into the world. But this kind of physical personality required nurturing to bring it to the proper result, for it would be a constant struggle Yaakov did not need this kind of nurturing. Therefore Yitzchak loved Esau, to strengthen him for the struggle that lay ahead.  He cites as proof of his reasoning the blessing originally intended for Esau: “And may God give you the dew of the heavens … People will serve you …” The dew of the heavens refers to an understanding that all blessings come from Hashem, and the wish that nations will serve him would be an acknowledgement that their blessings as well come from Hashem through Esau’s service to Him. When Yitzchak comes to the realization of the truth that he was mistaken about Esau and he trembles, he realizes that both aspects of splendor will be actualized through Yaakov.

Halekach Vehalebuv explains this reasoning with the next episode, after he has received the blessing intended for Esau. Yaakov now sees the well in the field. He can recognize God’s presence even in the fields, in nature and in the world around him outside the tent of study.

Rav Belsky provides yet a third approach to understanding Yitzchak’s love of Esau. He feels that one cannot question Yitzchak’s deep and abiding love for Yaakov. It is not stated because it is so obvious. But one must probe the depths of a father’s love for his wayward son, a love that will not give up on him. In spite of Esau’s evil deeds, Yitzchak finds a way to praise his son, to keep him close and maintain the relationship. If Esau senses his father’s love, perhaps he will not go so far astray. Indeed, Esau will not harm his brother even though he feels he has been wronged when Yaakov received “his” blessing as long as his father is alive. He will not cause his father pain, but he will wait until his father’s death to plot his revenge. His father’s love did have an impression on Esau.

Rivka, however, knew the truth about Esau from the beginning. She knew that he would never become righteous, for she had received this prophecy about the twins during her pregnancy. While she needed to protect the Abrahamitic legacy through Yaakov, she never ceased loving both her sons. The Torah repeatedly cites her as the mother of both Yaakov and Esau to emphasize this point.

Yitzchak and Rivka loved both their sons, each in a different way, for each needed a different kind of love. We certainly cannot judge them, but we can learn from their struggles, and we can pray that Hashem light up our eyes to see the Torah way to raise our children, teach our students, and interact with the world .

 Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

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