The verses in this week’s Torah portion describe the births, characteristics and personalities of Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons, Esau and Jacob. The verses write, “And her days to give birth were completed, and behold, there were twins in her womb. And the first one emerged ruddy; he was completely like a coat of hair, and they named him Esau. And afterwards, his brother emerged, and his hand was grasping Esau’s heel, and he named him Jacob…” (Genesis 25:24-26). Rashi, the classical biblical commentator, explains the reason behind these names. He writes, “and they named him Esau: They all called him this because he was complete (עָשׂוּי) [lit., made,]… His father called him Jacob (יַעִקֹב) because of the holding of the heel (הֶעָקֵב).” In the subsequent verses, the narrative continues to describe the differences between the personalities of the two brothers, as well as their individual relationships with both their father and mother. “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 .And Isaac loved Esau because his entrapment was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:27-28).
There are two main questions that arise from these verses: Firstly, why does the Torah deem it important to relate how the twins were born, and to then describe the reflection of their birth in their names? And secondly, are we to truly understand that Isaac loved his elder son because he was a skilled hunter, as if that somehow blinded him from Esau’s deceiving ways? The answers to these questions offer new dimension to both the biblical text, and provide timeless insight into parenting and raising children.
Rabbi Chanan Morrison in his work “Gold from the Land of Israel,” presents a fascinating perspective from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi in Israel during the British Mandate period, on the message behind the detailing of the birth of the Esau and Jacob. Rav Kook explains that these two sons, and their unique personalities, relate not to themselves alone but also to the two opposing drives that exist in the world. He writes, “Just as there are both positive and negative forces in the world, so too, every person is a composite of positive and negative traits….Esau represents the raw, base forces in the world. His reddish complexion indicated the violent and brutal nature of his personality. Jacob did not prevent Esau from coming into the world; after all, the world needs Esau and his raw power. Rather, Jacob held on to Esau’s heel, holding him back. The name Jacob refers to this aspect of restraint, reigning in the fierce forces.” (Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 58-59) Here, Rav Kook explains that from the very first moments of their birth, both Esau and Jacob had inherent character traits that defined their personalities. In the most basic terms, Esau was violent and base; Jacob was restrained and passive. So is true not only in the case of Esau and Jacob, but also with every child who is born into this world. Each child is born with their own unique traits which will help define their very path in life; admittedly, some traits are more positive than others. But the lesson and encouragement that we can take from here is that the Torah does not tell us to completely uproot negative traits and that a person born with less positive attributes and characteristics are without value. Rather, the Torah and Judaism challenge us to transform these qualities into positive growth. Whether as parents or educators, when looking at a child it must be foremost in our minds that there is no such thing as a “bad person” –even an “Esau” has value and what to contribute to the world. But it is the constant and lifelong job of parents, teachers—and the individual himself – to harness these attributes for the better and to make a positive impact.
Regarding the second matter, the biblical commentator Rashi presents the classic answer to the question of how Isaac was seemingly fooled by Esau and that he loved him, “because entrapment was in his mouth” Esau, explains Rashi, trapped Isaac by his mouth, which is further explained as follows: “The midrashic explanation is that there was entrapment in the mouth of Esau, who trapped his father and deceived him by his words.” (Rashi to 25: 28) On the simplest level, we can understand that Isaac loved Esau because he simply did not know his true character. However, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, offers another enlightening explanation on this and his is a message that is so crucial in parenting happy and healthy children today. Isaac was not hoodwinked or fooled into loving his son because he did not know his true character. It is in fact the opposite, writes Rabbi Sacks, “Isaac loved Esau precisely because he did know what Esau was.”
To better understand this message, Rabbi Sacks cites a well-known story about Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. “In the early twentieth century someone brought to the great Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, the following dilemma. He had given his son a good Jewish education. He had always kept the commands at home. Now, however, the son had drifted far from Judaism. He no longer kept the commandments. He did not even identify as a Jew. What should the father do? “Did you love him when he was religious?” asked Rav Kook. “Of course,” replied the father. “Well then,” Rav Kook replied, “Now love him even more.”
Rabbi Sacks uses this above story to illustrate the love of Isaac for his son, Esau. A father has two children: the younger one is well-behaved and exceptionally mannered, whereas the older one is not. In order to help the older child develop and mature into a moral and upright adult, it is natural that the parent will spend more time with and give more attention to the older child so in need of parental guidance. “It may be that Isaac loved Esau not blindly but with open eyes, knowing that there would be times when his elder son would give him grief, but knowing too that the moral responsibility of parenthood demands that we do not despair of or disown a wayward son.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation, Toldot 5771) According to this interpretation, Isaac loved Jacob and Esau equally, and was in no way tricked into this love for his eldest son. Rather, Isaac understood a fundamental truth: that each of his children was unique and that each required a different parental approach in order for them to reach their potential. And Esau was a child who was in desperate need of his father’s hand and direction, for he did not have innately positive attributes. It cannot be said that Esau was a person of sterling character and history will not remember him as the son who followed the righteous path, for he was not. But it is clear that his father Isaac loved him none the less.
In today’s day and age, with the frenzied pace of change and outside influences encroaching the home from all sides, raising children has become more difficult than in previous generations. But the knowledge and belief that every child is and has the potential to do great things, and showering them with love regardless of their path in life, will surely make this task all the more successful and rewarding.