Depending on how you look at it, Isaac, of all the Patriarchs, was the greatest. At age 37, says the Talmud, he allowed himself to be offered as a sacrifice by his father Abraham. And as attested to by this week’s portion, he spent most of his “career” re-establishing the wells his father had dug, cementing Abraham’s legacy in the land of Gerar.
He was even forbidden by the Almighty from moving to Egypt, because, as the commentaries show, he was regarded as a “perfect burnt offering” and thus fitting solely for the future Land of Israel.
But on the face of it, he wasn’t a successful parent. In fact, when viewed through the lens of modern psychology, the events surrounding Isaac’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau, are a lesson in faulty family dynamics: Isaac loves Esau, while Rebecca loves Jacob.
Jacob forces Esau to sell his birthright for a pittance and then, with his mother’s encouragement, tricks his old and blind father to granting him Esau’s blessing as well. Esau, bereft of a birthright and his rightful blessing, seeks revenge upon his twin brother, and so Jacob flees his home and fails to return for many years.
Classic interpretations based upon several elements of their biographies as recorded by the Torah view Jacob as righteous and his brother as wicked. And yet, nevertheless, they are both counted as toledot, the “descendant” of a righteous man.
The Karateistic view of Jacob and Esau identifies them as mirror opposites of each other. Jacob, who hid himself in the goat skins of his brother in order to fool his father, represents the inherent perfection of the soul, which must clothe itself in a body in order to perfect the world. Esau, on the other hand, represents the coarseness of the body, which though rooted in physicality, is bestowed an unlimited potential to raise itself above physical reality in order to achieve supernal perfection.
The fact that Esau fails to achieve his potential does not negate the idea that the goodness of Isaac remained hidden inside. Instead, it provides a lesson in how those who are “righteous” should approach their fellow man.
Like that of Jacob, who when he finally returns dispatches messengers to make the peace between him and Esau, the proper Jewish response to the wrongdoings of fellow brothers and sisters should be to reach out in an effort to reveal their potential.
The story of Isaac, however, may also provide a lesson: in how the dedication of a parent, consumed by the desire to help a child achieve greatness, can see the efforts backfire. Just as Isaac became blinded to the ruse that unfolded before his very eyes, each of us can sometimes be blinded by the view of what should be in the future, as opposed to what exists in the here and now.
Parenting is not about forcing perfection. Isaac, for all his greatness, failed to make Esau great, while Rebecca, for all her cunning, split her children apart. Parenting, like life, works best when it recognizes reality: A child’s challenges are there to be overcome, but the challenges must be acknowledged before navigating them. So, too, a person must first embrace his or her shortcomings before trying to change them.
In a sense, Isaac was not complete without either of his sons. And only when peace is made between them — between the good of what is and the good of what can be — does harmony reign.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: [email protected].