Educating Both Jacob and Esau

A number of years ago, the Haaretz newspaper ran a series of interviews with children from “large” families. The minimum number of children in the family for the paper to consider it a large family was 8. I once told my wife, I didn’t move to Israel to have a small to midsize family – let’s go for the big one. As a father of eight children, I have had the pleasure and privilege to watch the development of a group of children. One soon discovers during this demanding yet rewarding process that each child, from an early age, has his or her own personality, likes, and skills. I don’t think I was prepared for the educational challenges that come along with that complex system of individual persons and personalities.  As an educator, I have also been challenged by my own wants and desires not always matching those of the students in front of me.

King Solomon, the wisest of men, remarked in Proverbs, “instruct the child according to his way, and when he ages it will not leave him.” (Proverbs 22:6)  Paying attention and adapting to each child’s idiosyncrasies can be demanding and not every parent or educator navigates the waters successfully. In fact, in one of the most moving of passages on education, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch accuses the patriarchs of not living up to the challenge. The Torah recounts:

Isaac pleaded with the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived. … When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob. … When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp. Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah loved Jacob. (Genesis 25: 21-28)

The reader knows that Esau and Jacob will eventually become competitors and enemies. They will engage in a struggle which our rabbis describe in national and eternal terms. On the immediate level, however,  Hirsch brings his love for education and philosophic acumen to bear when explaining how the two brothers ended up on the brink of war:

Our sages, who never objected to draw attention to the small and great mistakes and weaknesses in the history of our great forefathers, and thereby make them just the more instructive for us here too on “They grew up” make a remark which is indeed a “signpost” for all of us. They point out that the striking contrast in the grandchildren of Abraham may have been due, not so much to a difference in their temperaments as to mistakes in the way they were brought up. As long as they were little, no attention was paid to the slumbering differences in their natures (see on V. 24) both had exactly the same teaching and educational treatment, and the great law of education “instruct the child according to his way” was forgotten: That each child must be treated differently, with an eye to the slumbering tendencies of his nature, and out of them, be educated to develop his special characteristics for the one pure human and Jewish life. The great Jewish task in life is basically simple, one and the same for all, but in realization is as complicated and varied as human natures and tendencies are …

But just because of that, must each one be brought up “according to his way” according to the presumed path of life to which his tendencies lead, each one differently towards the one great goal.  To try to bring up a Jacob and an Esau in the same manner, make them have the same habits and hobbies, want to teach and educate them in the same way for some studious sedate, meditative life is the surest way to court disaster. A Jacob will, with ever increasing zeal and zest, imbibe knowledge from the well of wisdom and truth while and Esau can hardly wait for the time when he can throw the old books…

Had Isaacs and Rebeca studied Esau’s nature and character enough, and asked themselves how can even an Esau with all the strength and energy, agility and courage that lies slumbering in this child, be won over to be used in the service of God…then Jacob and Esau, with their totally different natures could still have remained twin-brothers in spirit and life.

Rav Hirsch scathingly critiques the educational methodology of Isaac and Rebecca. Far from blaming the “victim” as it were of a failed system, Hirsch accuses the cookie cutter manner of Esau’s and Jacob’s upbringing. Hirsch’s interpretation should give every parent and educator pause.

As a Jewish educator and a parent, I find the great German rabbi’s accusation stinging.  In my experience, I have often come across students whose parents and teachers have sent them on a path incongruous with the student’s wants and needs. During the years I spent as the JLIC rabbi-educator at Brandeis University, I discovered that parents who forced their children to attend a secular college as opposed to Yeshiva University often caused great damage. And the reverse was also the case. Students who had wanted to attend a secular college but were sent to Y.U. or the like against their desires sometimes rebelled since that decision didn’t jibe with their personality.

For several years, I taught at a women’s seminary in Israel. I am reminded of an extremely bright student who really didn’t want to study in seminary but preferred attending college immediately after high school. Her parents demanded that she first study in a seminary in Israel. She hated it and despite her obvious aptitude, she eventually graduated from a top tier college, did poorly. At night she would escape with friends to the various parts of Jerusalem to be free of the constraints and rules placed upon her in terms of her dress and action.

What struck me most was that she walked the halls with a sad expression glued to her face.  Second semester, her parents acquiesced to her desires and she moved to Hebrew University. At some point, she came to visit in order to return a book or some other borrowed item. She arrived at the seminary dormitory, where my wife and I served as dorm parents. In clear violation of the seminary’ dress code, she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt.  But she was also wearing something else.  I told her that it was the first time I saw her smile. She looked genuinely happy in her own skin without the pretense placed upon her by her parents and the seminary. She had been suffocating and now she could breathe.

40 years or so before Harvard professor Howard Earl Gardner published his famous work, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, describing the need for educators to relate to their students’ various capabilities, the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, spelled out his own educational theory. Rabbi Shapira begins his work, Chovot HaTalmidim, declaring,

King Solomon wrote, “instruct [“Chanoch”] the child according to his way, for when he ages it will not abandon him,” this is the foundation of education that not only when the person is a child and his parent’s hand is upon him that he should listen and do the mitzvoth, but also when he grows up…“Chinuch” [in Hebrew the word for instruction] according to Rashi … means “beginning”. Now, it is obvious that it doesn’t mean every beginning… But rather as Rashi further explains on the verse “Chanichav” (Genesis 14:14) etc.  “that [Abraham] initiates them [in the performance of] mitzvoth.  This [word] expresses the beginning of initiating a person or vessel into the craft it will perform in the future. And so too ‘instruct the child’ (Prov. 22:6), ‘initiation of the altar’ (Numbers 7:10), ‘initiation of the house’ (Psalms 30:1)” …

According to Rabbi Shapira, education or initiation is not the act of creating per se but taking the unique latent potential within the existing child (or object) and bringing it to fruition according to its nature. He further elaborates:

Therefore, education is not the same for each child; it depends on each and every one according to his nature, aptitude, character etc. And it is incumbent on the educator to perceive these things. … What he instructs one is not the same as what he instructs the other who differs in abilities, desires, and character traits. And to that hints King Solomon saying “instruct the child according to his way” according to the [proper] way for each and every one.

Education, argues Rabbi Shapira, must be adapted and oriented to the qualities, abilities, and desires of each student. We as parents and educators must use our hearts to divine the best way for each and every child. The one size fits all approach is bound to fail.

Much of education today, it seems to me, fails this test. How often do some parents and educators set a particular standard and model which while it may be right for us, fails to take in to account the soul and heart of the student?

Rav Hirsch claims Isaac and Rebecca failed to properly understand the mind and character of Esau. I think Yeshivot and many other Jewish institutions have not always successful avoided the pitfall any better. The classic curriculum developed at some unknown point in history, placed a focus on particular foundational texts such as Talmud and demanded students conform to learning long hours concentrating on plumbing the depths of its reasoning. Yet, Talmud, as much as I love it, doesn’t speak to everyone. Even spreading the curriculum to encompass other text based disciplines or even branching into secular subjects may not work for all of our students. Many will excel at Talmudic casuistry or math problems, but others can find success in a variety of other fields and endeavors. The curriculum needs to relate to the reality of each student’s abilities.

This problem continues from the educational to the professional. It seems that too often, the definition of success limits the range of accepted professions. This self-imposed constraint can be devastating. J.D. Salinger beautiful describes the damage of restricting people’s professional development:

In my opinion, if you really want to know, half the nastiness in the world is stirred up by people who aren’t using their true egos. … You’ve been around schools long enough to know the score. Scratch an incompetent schoolteacher—or for that matter, college professor—and half the time you find a displaced first-class automobile mechanic or …stonemason. (Franny and Zoey pp. 167-168)

Especially in many Jewish communities, the model of academic achievement and future professional development are extremely circumscribed and students and adults are presented with myopic visions of success. The question that we need to ask is what is the price we pay for this approach to learning? Sometimes, people who would have exceled in other areas are diagnosed in one way or another as failures needing either medication or remedial training when perhaps the better approach would be to capitalize on their natural abilities and bring those to fruition both for the student’s sake as well as to improve our world.

Perhaps we need to open our hearts to both the Jacobs and the Esaus of this world. Let us begin to educate each and every child according to his or her own way.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.