How to bring up children, who despite being siblings, each have their own distinct personalities and character traits?
One might be a natural athlete, with great physical prowess, an outgoing personality and the killer instinct of a hunter. Another might be more introverted, with a brilliant mind, the strength of a weight lifter and a spiritually sensitive nature. Both are members of the same family, with the same parents and yet they are so different. What are parents to do?
In this week’s Torah reading[i], the Bible’s lessons are not so much about what should be done; but rather, what should not be done, in this kind of a situation. Our Patriarch, Isaac and Matriarch, Rebecca were blessed with fraternal twin sons. However, even during pregnancy, Rebecca realized that each boy was very different from the other. Indeed the Bible[ii] reports that they were at odds in the womb.
The Midrash[iii] explains that this was because of their opposing natures. As the Yalkut Shimoni[iv] clarifies, Esau’s aspirations were totally focused on the material world, including eating, drinking, success in business and other earthly delights. He had no interest in the world to come. Jacob aspired to earn his place in the world to come, which, albeit devoid of these earthly pleasures, has its own abundant spiritual rewards. This did not mean that Jacob totally abdicated his role in this world. Rather, it was a matter of what was primary and what secondary. As the Bible reports and Esau himself later observed, Jacob also enjoyed material success.
The Bible[v] alludes to the upbringing of the twin boys, by referring to the fact that the boys were raised together. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on the verse, points out that this was a fateful error. Instead of educating the boys together, using the same pedagogical techniques, each child should have received an education best suited to his individual nature and needs[vi].
Rav Hirsch explains how the goal of a Jewish education is the same for all children. However, the ways of accomplishing it are as manifold and diverse as human character traits and paths of life. He vividly presents how children can react differently to the same educational methods. He notes that the surest way to court disaster was sending Jacob and Esau to the same college, forcing both to have the same habits and hobbies and enrolling them in the same academic track, designed for those interested in pursuing a studious, sedate and meditative life. What may be appropriate and beneficial for one child may be extremely harmful to another. Esau could hardly wait to throw away those old books. At the same time, he was leading a separate life, behind the back of his parents, which he had learned on the streets, without the benefit of parental input, guidance and perspective.
This does not mean that the boys did not have some strengths and skills in common. After all, a hunter needs focus, patience, skill and knowledge and so does a scholar. Indeed, as Rebecca foresaw, Isaac eventually recognized and Jacob was to prove, in his own life’s journey, he was every bit as capable of succeeding as a businessman, warrior and progenitor of a nation. Nevertheless, Isaac and Esau shouldn’t have been together in the same classroom, subjected to the same routines and taught in the same manner. Even Jacob had to be motivated to go out into the world and not just be glued to his seat studying.
The challenge is to find a way to harness each child’s character traits in service of the higher divine purpose of perfecting both the individual and humankind. As the Talmud[vii] discusses, an individual predisposed to shedding blood, might, instead of being an armed robber, choose[viii] to become a surgeon, Mohel or ritual slaughterer. Indeed, it is reported that Moses may have had some pretty nasty character traits, including arrogance, vanity and indolence[ix]. However, inborn character traits don’t necessarily define how a person will act. Moses worked to sublimate these traits and harness them, in order to become one of the most extraordinary personages in history.
Isaac recognized Jacob and Esau were very different persons, but his philosophical approach to the problem was very different from that of Rebecca. He conceived of a plan under which there would be a strict division of labor between the two brothers, within the context of a partnership, where each could pursue their diverse aspirations[x].
In Isaac’s model, his first-born son, Esau, would use his proficiency in the ways of the world and talents, as a skilled businessman, to help support his brother, Jacob. Under this arrangement, Jacob would be freed from the rigors of earning a living and be able more fully to devote himself to scholarly activities and divine service. Thus, Isaac sought to bless his son Esau, with material prosperity and the blessing for spiritual success was reserved for Jacob.
In Isaac’s utopian vision, this seemed to be an ideal division of labor. Each son would use his particular talents for the common good and thereby build a nation. Isaac believed that, despite Esau’s shortcomings, he would nevertheless use his skills to support his brother, Jacob.
The Malbim presents a similar theme in his commentary on this Biblical text[xi]. He describes how it is not possible for everyone to be wholly involved in divine service. He posits that a nation needs saints and prophets, but also others who prepare the bread for them to meet their physical needs. Thus, G-d established the Tribe of Levi. They were to perform the divine service and receive financial support from the rest of the people. This is the model Isaac intended for Esau and Jacob, according to the Malbim. Jacob and his progeny would have the role of the Tribe of Levi, transmitting the Torah, being the servants of G-d and watching over the holy. Esau and his progeny would protect and support Jacob and his descendants. They would all form one nation, together.
This may seem like an idyllic solution, a division of labor, where each person uses his innate character traits to best advantage; or so it appears. Yet, I can’t help but wonder about the intrinsic validity of this model. If the purpose of creation is to transcend the physical, by embracing and developing the spiritual, despite the trappings of this world, then is either party actually succeeding in their mission under this kind of model? The division of functions means the worldly occupation partner is mired in the physical. By the same token, the spiritual partner does not have to grapple with the burdens of the physical world. Each is escaping the job that they don’t desire to perform. Instead of each embracing the challenges of their respective natures and overcoming them, they are, in effect, doubling down on their inherent weaknesses. However, our existence in this world is about developing it and ourselves. Whatever character traits we are born with are to be refined. It is about growth, not stagnation. The divided function model is inconsistent with this theme.
Rebecca disagreed with Isaac’s assumptions as to the proper model for their progeny. She did not believe Isaac’s utopian partnership model was viable in the real world. The Talmud[xii] also cautioned against this flawed model and explicitly described the untoward consequences that could result from following it.
Rebecca intervened to assure that Jacob was given the blessings for both material and spiritual success. Rebecca’s model, which combined Torah scholarship and a worldly occupation, did work in practice. Jacob went on to found the nation of Israel. Indeed, in reflecting on Jacob’s life, consider how he was a self-made man, who succeeded against all the odds. He left the wealthy household, in which he was raised, at his mother’s urging, to escape Esau’s[xiii] wrath and recriminations.
Jacob started his new life with just the clothes on his back. It is reported[xiv] that Esau, sent his son Eliphaz, to kill Jacob. Instead of committing homicide, Eliphaz took all of Jacob’s wealth, thereby rendering him destitute He was likened to a dead person, according to the Talmud[xv]. Jacob also managed to study for a number of years at the Academy of Shem V’Ever[xvi], before his encounter with Lavan. He then worked for Lavan, who sought at every turn to rob him of any individual success[xvii]. Jacob overcame all of these challenges and triumphed.
Jacob became a consummate scholar, successful businessman, husband, father, family man and progenitor of a nation. He was the complete package, a self-sufficient individualist, able to balance the spiritual and material. This has been an enduring paradigm for millennia.
It’s time to reaffirm and embrace Jacob’s model. We can transcend our character traits, origins, education, upbringing and predispositions. We can choose to be better.
[i] Genesis 25:22-27.
[ii] Genesis 25:22.
[iii] Bereishit Rabbah 63:6.
[iv] Remez 111:12.
[v] Genesis 25:27.
[vi] Citing Proverbs 22:6, as scriptural support for this proposition.
[vii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos, at page 156a.
[viii] See Chiddushe Aggadot of the Maharsha on this Talmudic text.
[ix] See the Tiferes Yisrael commentary on Mishna, Kiddushin 4:14.
[x] Chiddushe HaRim (on Parshat Toldos, at page 36, dealing with Genesis, Chapter 25, Verse 28).
[xi] Genesis 27:1.
[xii] See Avot 2:2 and Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 29a, as well as, the discussion below.
[xiii] Genesis 27:42-43.
[xiv] See Rashi on Genesis, Chapter 29, Verse 11.
[xv] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim, at page 64b.
[xvi] An academy of higher learning established by Noah’ son Shem and his son, Ever. As reported in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Megillah, at page 17a), Jacob studied there for 14 years prior to his traveling to the land of his ancestors and his encounter with his mother’s brother, Lavan. See also Rashi on Genesis, Chapter 25, Verse 27, as well as, Genesis Rabbah, Chapter 63, Paragraph 10.
[xvii] Genesis 31:35-41.