Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, tells the story of a friend who called him in a dither. At odds with his son, the exasperated father asked Covey to intervene. "Stephen, I don't understand my son. He never listens to me!" Covey responded, "Let me get this straight. You don't understand your son because he doesn't listen to you?" "That's right." "Well," said Covey, "if you want to understand your son, try listening to him."
I think of this tale every year when we read Toldot. In it, we meet Rebecca and Isaac's twin sons, Jacob and Esau.
Jacob is said to be inclined to Torah study even in the womb while Esau's every move shows his bloodthirsty, deceptive nature. When our sages sought a code word for the cruel Roman Empire, they chose Edom, the pseudonym used for Esau and those he sired.
Examining the portion closely, a more nuanced picture appears. Jacob, wishing to become heir to his grandfather Abraham's legacy, also schemes by selling his famished brother a bowl of soup. Esau, while impetuous and crude, supports his parents and brother by hunting and exemplifies the mitzvah of honoring one's father more than any character in the Torah.
What led to the rupture of the second Patriarchal family? According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the core problem began long before the ruse through which Jacob ostensibly usurped Esau's blessing. It is found in the phrase, "And the boys grew up."
Hirsch wondered where Isaac and Rebecca were during this growth process. By paying more attention to their sons' respective characters, they might have helped Esau channel his strength constructively while guiding Jacob to expand his generosity and curb his deceptive tendencies.
A 10th century midrash shows us what might have been had each brother received guidance appropriate to him.
It is written, "And the boys grew up (became great);" this refers to Jacob and Esau. Just as the divine name rested upon Jacob, so to it should have rested upon Esau; Esau was worthy to sire Kings and Jacob was worthy to sire Priests.
The question of valuing and guiding our children along their diverse paths is a particular challenge to the Jewish community. Traditionally, we venerate academic achievement, growing to expect it.
Are Differences Nurtured?
But what about those who aren't academically gifted but show potential as craftspeople or technicians? Do we treasure them and help them find the venues to develop their gifts?
Or are we prisoners of our preconceptions, which keep us from listening to them and discerning their needs? Do we teach all our children that, no matter one's field, successful living is authentic and productive? Or are we busy rationalizing the actions of those who aren't following the "acceptable" path?
The Torah's most rending plea is that of Esau to Isaac: "Father, don't you have another blessing for me?" The lesson of Toldot is that we need multiple blessings to address our children's varied natures and that these blessings be liberally offered.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: Rabbi363@gmail.com.