Parashat Toldot 5778
Carry On My Wayward Son
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) was a leading spiritual, intellectual and communal figure in his day. Among his many accomplishments was the creation of an educational format that put individuals, both male and female, in the center. Not coincidentally, in his commentary on Parashat Toldot, Rabbi Hirsch took aim at the second generation of our patriarchs, Yitzchak and Rivka, pointing out what he saw as a shortcoming on their part. Rabbi Hirsch accuses them of failing to tailor their children’s education to their individual personalities. Because they raised their children identically, the responsibility for the failure of one child (Esav) to live up to parental expectations is placed squarely on their shoulders: Their parenting skills, or lack of such, were insufficient to provide Esav with what he needed to succeed. Esav was raised and educated precisely the way Yaakov was raised and educated – and this was a failure Yitzchak and Rivka shared.
One of the essential goals of Torah study is to distill a message that is relevant to the modern reader from the ancient text, and the message Rabbi Hirsch conveys is an essential principle of Jewish education. King Solomon expressed this ethos succinctly in Mishlei: “Educate the youngster according to his (or her) own path.” Individual interests, capabilities, and aptitude must shape educational programs and educational goals. The “one size fits all” approach is one of the many negative attributes ascribed to the wicked city of Sodom.
Clearly, Rabbi Hirsch’s message is of crucial importance. What remains to be seen, though, is whether the message he distilled is an accurate or appropriate reading of this week’s Parasha.
The question of Esav’s education is a weighty one. His mother Rivka had the burden of prophesy; she was told from the outset how this child would turn out. Did her knowledge become a “self-fulfilling prophecy”? Was she able to invest the emotional energy in the son she knew would pale in comparison to his brother? Such questions are difficult, if not impossible, to answer. The Torah does not record any direct communication between Rivka and Esav; perhaps this silence, in and of itself, reveals more than we might have thought.
On the other hand, the Torah provides very important and unequivocal information about Yitzchak’s relationship with his older son: Yitzchak loved Esav.
“Yitzchak loved Esav because of the hunted (food) in his mouth, and Rivka loved Yaakov. (Bereishit 26:28)
This verse may be construed as evidence of a certain degree of dysfunctionality in the family, with each parent favoring a different child. A second alarming element of this verse is that Yitzchak’s love seems conditional; no parent should have to explain why they love their child. It seems bizarre that the text specifies why Yitzchak loved Esav, and even more bizarre that his love was based on food. However, a closer reading may reveal something important about the relationship between father and son, and something even deeper about Yitzchak’s educational strategy.
In an earlier verse, the Torah attests to the very different dispositions and interests of the twins:
When the boys grew up, Esav became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors, and Yaakov was a mild man who stayed in camp. (Bereishit 26:27)
It may well be that hunting did not resonate with Yitzchak; from everything we know about him, Yitzchak was a cerebral, spiritual person. It would be difficult to imagine him taking joy in the hunt. On the other hand, it appears from the text that Yitzchak made a conscious effort to share his son Esav’s enthusiasm and to praise him for his skill – even if this was not what Yitzchak himself would have chosen as a vocation or avocation for his children. Yitzchak was attentive to Esav’s interests; he valued and encouraged Esav’s strengths, and went out of his way to develop a taste for his son’s food. This is even more apparent in a later section of the Parasha: Before bestowing his parting blessings, Yitzchak commands Esav to bring him food which he has hunted:
Take your gear, your bow and arrow, and go out to the field and hunt me some game. (Bereishit 27:3)
By commanding his son to hunt, Yitzchak transforms Esav’s (questionable) pastime into a commandment; hunting game to feed his father becomes a mitzvah.
Yitzchak is a brilliant parent, who recognizes that this son needs the adrenaline rush, that he is never going to be a mild-mannered “man of the tents” like his twin brother Yaakov. Yitzchak finds a way to identify with his son, and to put his personal proclivities to constructive use. By asking Esav to bring him food, Yitzchak transforms the act of hunting into an act of holiness.
This also explains a difficult passage found later in the narrative. Rivka, who always knew that her younger son would be the one to achieve spiritual greatness, instructs Yaakov to present his father with food she has cooked. Yitzchak, blind and elderly by this point, is taken aback by the apparent speed with which his son has fulfilled his request. Even when his son identifies himself as Esav, Yitzchak remains unsettled; he asks, once again, how he has managed to hunt and prepare the food so quickly.
Yitzchak said to his son, “How did you succeed so quickly, my son?” And he said, “Because the Almighty your God granted me good fortune.” (Bereishit 27:20)
Yitzchak seems flummoxed by this uncharacteristic response: Can it be that Esav is speaking of God? He asks his son to come near him, so he can feel his skin, but Rivka had prepared for this possibility by placing hairy skins on Yaakov’s arms:
So Yaakov drew close to his father Yitzchak, who felt him and said, “The voice is the voice of Yaakov, yet the hands are the hands of Esav.” (Bereishit 27:22)
What do we imagine Yitzchak’s tone of voice was when he spoke these words? Was this phrased as a question, or a declaration? Was Yitzchak confused, or did he know which of his sons stood before him? Either way, why did he proceed? Would he really bestow a valuable blessing if he was unsure of the identity of the beneficiary? We have no choice but to conclude that this verse should be punctuated with an exclamation point; it was a statement, a proclamation: “The voice is the voice of Yaakov, yet the hands are the hands of Esav!”
At that moment, Yitzchak was convinced that his wild, wayward son Esav had finally found his inner spiritual voice, that he had been able to channel his energies and connect with his own unique spiritual identity. Yitzchak rejoiced in the thought that Esav had found the Divine spark within himself, had connected to God through hunting and cooking. Yitzchak believed that he had succeeded in his mission to educate Esav. But alas, the person who stood before him was Yaakov, and not Esav. It was not Esav who had found God, it was the studious and spiritual Yaakov, who had, with his mother’s guidance and encouragement, figured out how to get along in this complicated world. The person who received Yitzchak’s first blessing was Yaakov obeying his mother, and not Esav obeying his father. It was Yaakov who had found the hands of Esav, and not Esav who had found the voice of Yaakov.
Yitzchak never treated his sons identically. He knew that each son needed to walk a different path. Yitzchak raised and educated – and loved - each of his children in the manner that their unique personalities required.
Rav Hirsch’s educational credo was surely correct; we must educate different children differently. But Rav Hirsh’s criticism of Rivka and Yitzchak seems misplaced. Rather than using them as an example of poor parenting, Yitzchak and Rivka can and should serve as an example of sensitive, attentive parenting that we all would do well to emulate.
© Rabbi Ari Kahn 2017
For more Essays and Lectures on Toldot: