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Toldot: Why Can't Esau be More like Jacob?

Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Rebecca had a difficult pregnancy. "The children agitated within her, causing her to exclaim: If this is so, wherefore am I? So she went to inquire of God" (Genesis 25:22). Talmudic legend supplies the cause of the agitation: whenever she passed by an idolatrous temple, Esau would stir in her womb; whenever she passed by a study hall for Torah, Jacob would rouse himself. As the biblical text informs us, she learned from God that the twins she was carrying would become antagonists until, ultimately, the elder would come to serve the younger. 

Sibling rivalry is a prevalent theme throughout Genesis. The children of Adam, Noah, Terah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all in competition, if not outright conflict. Curiously, however, it is the younger sibling who, in every case, triumphs. God prefers Abel to Cain, Shem to Yefet, Abraham to Nahor, Isaac to Ishmael, Jacob to Esau, Joseph and Judah to Reuben, Peretz to Zerah, and, finally, Ephraim to Manasseh. Later, far beyond Genesis, David will be preferred over his older brothers, and so will Solomon.

The Torah describes the upbringing of Jacob and Esau briefly: "The lads grew up; Esau became a skilled hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a simple man, dwelling in tents." Post-biblical Jewish tradition has it that Esau's hunting, like that of Nimrod before him, bespeaks an essential rebelliousness before God, while the tents in which Jacob dwelled are synonymous with rabbinic study halls. Talmudic and medieval homiletics transformed the brothers' rivalry into the ongoing antagonism between, first, Judea and Rome and, later, Judaism and Christianity. The second-century sage Shimon bar Yohai went so far as to postulate, as a matter of essential religious consequence, that "Esau hates Jacob."

But was that necessarily a foregone conclusion? Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) did not think so. The leader of "neo-Orthodox" German Jewry, Hirsch originated the concept of "Torah im derekh eretz," Torah together with worldliness, a concept he applied in his own educational endeavors and that foreshadowed the characteristic combination of Jewish and secular studies in contemporary American day schools. In his commentary on the Torah, Hirsch offers a seemingly sacrilegious observation on the way Jacob and Esau were raised:

[T]he sharp contrast between the two grandsons of Abraham may not have originated merely in their natural tendencies but may also have been caused by mistakes in their upbringing.

In other words, according to Hirsch, Isaac and Rebecca failed, as parents, to deal correctly with the differences between their twin sons. In particular, they mistakenly thought that the two boys could be educated in identical fashion; in so doing, they fell afoul of the biblical caution, "Educate a lad in his own way, and even in old age he will not stray therefrom" (Proverbs 22:6). This, to Hirsch, was equivalent to an injunction to follow what is today called differentiated instruction:  that is, taking students' varied backgrounds and predilections into consideration rather than teaching everybody the same things in the same way. Hirsch:

Under such conditions a Jacob type will learn to draw with ever-growing zeal from the well of wisdom and truth, but an Esau type will hardly be able to wait for the day when he can throw away his ancient school books. At that time he will turn his back not only on his schoolbooks but also on his life's purpose, which he has been taught only in a one-sided way that has no appeal to his temperament.

Drawing the moral for his own time, Hirsch adds that all who bear responsibility for the next generation must exercise greater care to nurture children's individuality. The ensuing benefits, he concludes, may be nothing short of earth-shaking. After all, he writes:

Had Isaac and Rebecca studied Esau's nature and asked themselves at an early stage how even an Esau, with the strength, skills, and courage latent within him, could be won for endeavors in the service of God . . . the sword of Esau could have become wedded early on to the spirit of Jacob, and who knows what a different turn all of history would have taken.

Raising children is challenging; twins, all the more so. The Torah's penchant for promoting the second-born over the first may be designed to teach that status should be conferred in accordance with moral character rather than with accidents of birth or social standing. Hirsch's idealistic addendum is a reminder of the role played in the development of that moral character by a nurturing and well-tailored education.

So, why can't Esau be more like Jacob? In the end, like everything else in the upbringing of children, the imponderables outnumber the certainties. Parents can only do their best, hoping that tradition and schooling will lend a helping hand—and that, when they become parents themselves, their children will do even better.

Moshe Sokolow is professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University.



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