Parashat toldot: Every person is a whole world

One of the great Jewish philosophers of the 19th century was Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88), a German Orthodox rabbi.

PUPILS PRAY at the Kehilot Ya’acov Torah School for Boys in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
PUPILS PRAY at the Kehilot Ya’acov Torah School for Boys in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Last week we finished reading the life story of Abraham, the first of the three patriarchs of the Jewish nation. In this week’s parasha, Toldot, we turn to the life of his son, Isaac, the second patriarch, and immediately we read the stories of the twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, who were so different in character from one another.
The parasha goes into great detail regarding the competition between Jacob and Esau to find favor in the eyes of their parents, Rebekah and Isaac. This conflict is summarized in the verse: “And Isaac loved Esau… but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Genesis 25, 28)
It was that simple. Father loved Esau and mother loved Jacob. This emotional dilemma of Isaac’s and Rebekah’s had a great impact on the fate of the Jewish people. The patriarchs were aware of the fact that they were the founders of a nation, and the question that stood before them was: Who would be more suitable to follow in Abraham’s path, Jacob or Esau?
In the Jewish nation’s historic consciousness, Esau is depicted as evil, as a disturbed person who does whatever he pleases with no moral compunction whatsoever. This depiction makes it hard for us to grasp why Isaac would even want Esau to follow in his footsteps and build the nation.
Apparently, things were not so clear then. Esau’s qualities seemed to Isaac to suit the role. In his eyes, Esau could utilize his stormy temperament for the mission before him. How was this possible?
One of the great Jewish philosophers of the 19th century was Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88), a German Orthodox rabbi. In his commentary on the Torah, he focused on the verse “And the youths grew up, and Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents.” (ibid., 27). In his opinion, based on the sages of the midrash, this verse contains an implied criticism of the way Isaac and Rebekah educated their sons.
“As the boys were growing up,” wrote Hirsch, “it became more and more apparent how completely different they were in character and their way of life. From a remark of our sages we learn that this ever-growing conflict was partly due to a faulty education.
“‘Bring up the lad according to his way’ (Proverbs 22:6) is an important principle of Jewish education, whose aims are the same for all children who are to be trained toward their God-willed vocation of life. However, the methods that have to be employed to attain this goal must necessarily vary in accordance with the natural talents, inclinations and general disposition of the child. What is appropriate for and to the benefit of one child may be extremely harmful to another.”
According to Hirsch, it was not Esau’s character that led to Jacob being chosen to continue Abraham’s path, but the education given to Esau; an education that did not suit his character and inclinations. This is what led him to become the “evil Esau.”
This educational message is the key to success. Many parents ask themselves how they can succeed in raising their children with the values they cherish – integrity, loyalty, holiness, and justice. The answer to this was written thousands of years ago: “Bring up the lad according to his way.” Examining the child’s character and traits will lead to successful education.
Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto (an Italian kabbalist and poet, 1707-1747) began his famous book Mesilat Yesharim (The Path of the Just) with the following words: “The foundation of piety and the root of perfect service [of God] is for a man to clarify and come to realize as truth what is his obligation in his world.” Let us note: “his obligation in his world.” Every person has his own unique world and his own unique obligation.
The assumption that a child is slated to fulfill his parents’ exact expectations is a recipe for failure. Every person has a character he or she can use to fulfill their life’s goals, and we must shape our education to this character when we wish to educate the next generation.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.