When you think about the stories of our founding fathers and mothers, it becomes obvious that none of them could ever win Parents of the Year awards. First Avraham listens to Sarah and banishes his firstborn Ishmael. Then he listens to God and almost sacrifices his son Yitzhak, Sarah’s firstborn. Zero for two.
Then we have Yitzhak and Rivka. Yitzhak is probably still shell shocked by his near death experience, Rivka comes from a family of cheats and perhaps even worse. They have twins and what do they do? They choose favorites. We read that Yitzhak loved Esau because he was a hunter, and Rivka loved Yaacov, perhaps because he wasn’t like her own family. Or perhaps he was! When we get to Yaacov we’ll see that he makes an even bigger mistake, playing favorites with one of his twelve boys.
But back to Yitzhak and Rivka. Anyone who has two or more children, even twins, knows that the same environment can yield children with totally different personalities. Many Bible commentators berate our ancestors for their bad parenting practices. Some, like Samson Rafael Hirsch, adopt the Jean Jacques Rousseau approach: develop the child according to his or her own penchants, preferences and nature. Because one-size treatment does not fit anyone.
Some commentators go so far as to say that Esau could have turned out to be a totally different person if he had been treated correctly. Which means we would have had to find another bad guy.
All this is, obviously, severely anachronistic. Child psychologists were not available to give counseling to our befuddled Biblical parents, who probably did not see anything wrong with their handling of the situation.
A popular song in Israel in the 1960s was “What does a person need to live?” from a musical called “I Like Mike.” What a person needs to live, according to the song, is: a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, a bed to sleep in, and love all the time…. (later verses add a car, a roof that doesn’t leak, and a daddy who gives you a few lirot every other day).
What did the people who lived in biblical times need? Food, drink, a tent to live in, a few sheep and cows, a piece of land, and children to help out in the fields. That’s what children were for – to work for the family and then beget the next generation.
What this means is that Esau was probably more useful to the family’s economic health than Yaacov. Esau doesn’t sound like one who would have tended sheep, but he certainly brought home the meat.
These temperaments, which were apparent from the children’s birth, could explain why Yitzhak preferred Esau to Yaacov. Yaacov was too mild-mannered, perhaps too much like Yitzhak had been as a youngster. Perhaps Esau reminded Yitzhak of his half-brother Ishmael, whom he liked. Esau, on the other hand, would never let anyone bind him on an alter to be slaughtered and burnt.
The question then has to be adjusted. It’s not why our ancestors did not treat their children in what we would call a proper manner but rather why one generation did not at least learn from its own experience and why they insisted on perpetuating the same type of parenting problems.
Yitzhak knew what it meant to disown a child – he had seen Ishmael banned from his home. Yet he showed a marked preference for Esau, leaving Yaacov to stew in his lentils. Yaacov, in turn, learned nothing from this favoritism and applied it with great vigor with his children. It is only with Moshe, Aharon and Miriam that we find siblings who have a mutually supportive relationship, and that was 400 years later!
One simple answer to why these people treated their children as they did is that they didn’t know any better. An even a more basic answer is that they didn’t really care. You want to be angry, be angry. Just be sure to get the work done in the fields or no one will have what to eat.
Here’s another question. Why was it so important to get the primacy of the first-born and the father’s blessing, that Rivka urged Yaacov to lie and misrepresent himself to Yitzhak? The birthright was more than a title. It was more than receiving a double share. It meant inheriting the family land.
The more children a person had, the more working hands he had. But it also meant the more poor people there would be in the next generation, because only one would inherit the farm or fields. Dividing the inheritance among all the children would mean starvation for all.
If big brother was really generous, he would let his siblings live on the land, work it and be paid wages like a laborer. In this way, the inheritor would have enough to eat and his siblings would not go hungry.
Our approach to kids today creates other problems. Kids in economically sound families may become so blasé they don’t know what to do with what they have, they may seek thrills in extreme activities or in drugs because their lives are too sedate or suffocating. Would they fare better in the Biblical system? Not a chance. And they’d have no one to complain to!
Which just shows that each generation has its problems. And no matter what parents do, the children will almost always be able to blame them later. Ce la vie!