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Parshat Toldot 2018
Are Yitzhak and Rivka at fault for the way their children turned out? Or were Yaacov and Esau preprogramed genetically to become what they became? In other words, are they products of nature or nurture? Are they symbolic of the relationship between Jews and the rest of the world? Or are they simply a lesson in parenting?
Although the ethos and lessons of the stories of Yaacov and Esau, of Yitzhak and Rivka are quite clear-cut, they have been distorted freely in order to justify – well, our whole history. Esau is not the bad guy and Yaacov is not the ish tam – the simple or unassuming man. Yitzhak is a bundle of contradictions and Rivka, the woman who loves Yaacov and seems concerned about the continuity of her husband’s religion, is as devious as her brother Lavan, whom we will encounter again in next week’s parsha. In other words, nothing is as it seems.
We are told that the two boys engaged in fetal fisticuffs and that they were born with certain characteristics. I think we can all agree that our children and grandchildren all have certain inborn personality traits. Are they fostered after birth or thwarted? That’s where nature vs nurture enters the picture.
Rivka loves Yaacov. Why – we are not told. Yitzhak loves Esau because he loves the food he brings in as a hunter. It is possible that Esau symbolizes everything Yitzhak wasn’t and wishes he were. Or it’s possible that he saw the honesty in Esau’s approach to life (alive today, maybe dead tomorrow) as compared to the mental life of Yaacov. We just don’t know.
Obviously, if a child has specific traits that are rewarded with fatherly or motherly love, the chances are that child will continue to manifest those traits. This is Esau perpetuating his life as a hunter in part because of the love he receives from Yitzhak. And Yaacov puttering along as he does basking in the love of Mother Rivka.
Some facts in the story stand out. Yitzhak loved Esau. Yet at age 40 Esau went and married two Canaanite women. Wasn’t this what Avraham had tried to prevent by sending his servant Eliezer back to Haran to find a wife for Yitzhak? Shouldn’t this act of revolt have upset Yitzhak?
It did. We read that Esau’s actions were a source of discontent for his father and mother. But still, Yitzhak wanted to bestow the blessing on him. He was the first-born, so he deserved it. But Avraham had already broken that mold. Yitzhak was not the first born yet he received Avraham’s blessing. And Yaacov’s first born will not receive the blessing, nor will Yosef’s first born. The only explanation is that Yitzhak loved Esau unconditionally. Or rather conditionally regarding his professional persona but unconditionally in regard to his spiritual persona.
This leads to a totally heretical thought. Could Yitzhak have been unconcerned about passing on the heritage of Avraham to later generations? Maybe the akeida, his near sacrifice, had shattered his attachment? Or, as the rabbis contend in Yitzhak’s defense, perhaps he thought that Esau’s good hidden qualities would come to the fore if only given a chance. A third option offered by the rabbis – Esau was a con man who tricked his father. We don’t know.
Rabbi Shimon Felix offers another view of the effects of Yitzhak and Rivka’s parenting skills on their children. Perhaps, he says, Yitzhak’s focus on only one side of Esau – the hunter side – is what limited Esau’s development and prevented him from allowing other sides of his personality to emerge. This would be supported by the statement in the Torah that Yitzhak loved Esau because he was a hunter.
In contrast, Rivka’s love for Yaacov is not explained. It could be that she saw in him a tabula rasa that she could mold. Or perhaps she showered her motherly love on him no matter what kind of person he was and no matter what he did. According to Rabbi Felix, this left Yaacov’s options open and allowed him to develop over the years, so that even when faced with severe adversity, he was able to adapt and find a way to succeed. We see this in his dealings with Lavan, and later when he reconnects with Esau.
Of course, it did not teach him how to deal with his own children, and we will see what a mess he made with them in a few weeks. But that’s another story.
Can we extrapolate from relations between the brothers to relations between Jews and other nations, be they Arabs or Europeans or Asians? Can we say that our early relationships, as reflected in our parsha, lay the foundations for mistrust and enmity? We cannot say that Yaacov was deceitful from birth or that he learned to be deceitful in order to survive. What we can say is that both the education that parents impart, and the education that each culture provides for its children basically shape the beliefs of those children when they grow up. An education that fosters the acceptance of others would most probably lead to better relations and a better world.
This is not all pie-in-the-sky. Realistically, people get along when they believe it is in their best interests to do so, economically and otherwise, and even more so when the powers that be (parents or governments) do not incite against others. It’s a two-way street of course.
So, it all boils down to education and to overt and covert signals transmitted by our culture, as is clearly evident in many countries in the world today. Which way are we going? Good question.