I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving with family and friends. Middy and I spent the holiday in Connecticut with our son Mario and his wife and two children. Our son Ariel joined us there. On Sunday all of us guys went on a hike in a game reservation. We hiked about a mile to the summit of a lookout, then walked down just before sunset. As we were walking down, my two grandchildren, boys ages 9 and 6, were having a grand time together. Ariel looked at me and his big brother, Mario and asked, “Do you think that they will always get along like that?” Before anyone could say anything he asked, “Did you get along with your brother like that, Dad?” I told him that my brother and I were close in childhood, but our interests diverged as we approached adolescence and we went on to lead very different lives. I thought to myself that it is wonderful when siblings can be friends, as our two sons are, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Is it all about parenting? Rabbi Sydney Greenberg, z”l tells the story of one student of child behavior who frequently delivered a lecture entitled, “Ten Commandments For Parents.” He married and became a father. He changed the title of his lecture to “Ten Hints For Parents.” A second child was born and the lecture title became “Some Suggestions For Parents.” When a third child arrived the lecturer simply stopped lecturing.
Despite having the same parents, growing up in the same household, and being exposed to the same influences, siblings often grow up to develop different talents, pursue different interests, and often see the world in different ways. The late Gershom Scholem, of whom I spoke earlier, was one of four brothers. One of them was attracted to no ideals or movements. One became a right wing German nationalist. A third, turned communist, was a member of the Reichstag and was killed by the Nazis in Buchenwald. Of course, Gershom himself emigrated to pre-state Israel and devoted his life to studying and teaching our heritage. But these differences pale in comparison with the siblings we meet in this week’s Torah portion.
Jacob and Esau are twin brothers born to Isaac and Rebecca after twenty years of infertility. You can imagine how happy this couple must have been to give birth to two sons after such a long period of childlessness. Right from birth they were totally different. Esau was a robust child who was born first. His head was covered with so much hair it gave him the appearance of an older child, not a newborn. Jacob was born second, grasping onto the heel of his older brother. Rashi cites a midrash that says that Jacob was conceived first, and should have legitimately been born first. His grasping of the heel was to try to prevent Esau from being first born.
Thus, the competition between these two brothers was present right from the get- go According to the rabbis, they were relatively similar to one another as children. But, as they reached adolescence their differences began to emerge. Esau was an active man, an athlete and a hunter. Jacob was a quiet, studious sort, preferring the comforts of home to the challenges of the outdoor life. The Torah does not make a moral judgement on their character or their behaviors. Later rabbinic thought, however, idealizes Jacob and demonizes Esav.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, living in Germany in the 19th century, accepts the Rabbi’s assertion that Jacob was virtuous and Esau was wicked. He attributes the differences between Jacob and Esau to the mistakes that their parents made in raising them. Esau could have turned out more like Jacob, according to Hirsch, had their parents recognized each one’s natural proclivities and tailored their education to take advantage of each one’s unique talents. Instead, Hirsch maintains, they educated the boys in the same way and treated them similarly. This worked out great for Jacob, who “drew with ever growing zeal from the well of wisdom and truth”. But Esau could not wait until his schooling was over, when he could throw away his books and set out on life. According to Hirsch, had Isaac and Rebecca been more sensitive to what Esau needed, he could have grown up to become a more virtuous, well rounded individual.
I’m not so sure about that! Children are subject to many influences which help mold their lives and that are beyond the control of parents. As parents, we all make mistakes. No one is perfect, or omniscient, and can know exactly what each particular child needs. To hold ourselves solely responsible when our children do not turn out the way we hoped is a tendency we ought to resist. It is not that we should totally absolve ourselves of all responsibility when it comes to who our children turn out to be – but we ought to maintain a reasonable perspective. Nor should we succumb to the illusion that when things turn out well it is all to our credit. Parenting is a humbling undertaking. Parents can only do their best – and hope that when our children themselves become parents that they will do even better.