Throughout Parshat Toldot one cannot help but be struck by the challenging family dynamics. In the marital relationship between Yitzchak and Rivka, as well as the way they parent their sons Yaakov and Eisav, there is a notable absence of communication, transparency and family decision making.
All the stories within this Parsha highlight the lack of communication between husband and wife, Yitzchak and Rivka.
Rivka didn’t confide in her husband the prophecy that she received when she was pregnant, that the elder of the twins she was carrying would serve the younger. Later, when they traveled to Gerar to avoid the famine, Yitzchak didn’t tell Rivka that as a precautionary measure she should act as his sister rather than his wife; he simply introduced her as such to the people that they met. Yitzchak prepared to give an important blessing to Eisav, without first informing or consulting Rivka. She disagreed with his choice of son, but instead of telling him this, she orchestrated Yaakov’s deception. After the blessings have been given, Eisav was so furious that he wanted to murder his brother. Even with Yaakov’s life in danger, Rivka didn’t disclose this to Yitzchak. Instead, she set up a scenario where Yitzchak was the one to suggest that Yaakov should be sent away, in order to find a wife.
An absence of clear communication channels between parents isn’t the only parenting challenge we see here. Rivka and Yitzchak view their children in very different ways and their parenting styles reflect this.
From utero, their children displayed distinctive and opposing natures. They also differed greatly in appearance, and in their place in their parents’ affections. Yitzchak loved Eisav. Rivka loved Yaakov.
Yitzchak’s favouritism is somewhat hard to comprehend. We are told that it is because Eisav was a hunter and a trapper. It is troubling to contemplate that Yitzchak’s “affections would be determined by his stomach,” as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it. Rashi interprets it to mean that Eisav trapped his father with his words, he deceived him. He pretended to be a righteous do-gooder, when in fact he was living a violent and immoral life. Yitzchak couldn’t, or wouldn’t see Eisav’s true nature and this must have been very challenging for his wife.
Psychologist and author of several books on parenting and family life, Sarah Chana Radcliffe writes: “Don’t try to make up for your spouse’s parenting challenges because doing so will make your own parenting unbalanced. If your spouse is too strict, don’t be overly lenient. If your spouse can’t set boundaries, don’t be Mr. or Mrs. Tough parents. Instead, just do normal parenting so your children can experience, learn and internalise that. A child just needs one good model.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks presents an alternative idea, the possibility that Yitzchak was fully aware of Eisav’s true nature and that he loved him because of it: “sometimes love can do what rebuke cannot.” Rivka was aware of Eisav’s wild nature, so she favoured Yaakov. Yitzchak chose to react in a different way, devoting more love and attention to this wayward son than to his well-behaved son.
Eisav, who was leading a violent life, engaged in theft and murder, had enough respect for his father, that he didn’t consider harming his brother whilst his father was still alive. So too, Eisav’s first two wives were a source of contention for his parents. Yet, after hearing his father advise Yaakov on the importance of not marrying a Canaanite woman, he also heeded his father’s advice and travelled to Yishmael to marry one of his daughters. Perhaps here we see the result of Eisav receiving love from Yitzchak, the effect of one good model, in a situation where Rivka felt challenged.
We may differ in parenting style from our spouse, Rivka and Yitzchak clearly did. Sometimes we can benefit from clear communication, compromise, or therapy. Other times, we have to do our best, regardless of what our partner chooses to do, and take comfort in Radcliffe’s words that “a child just needs one good model.”