Parshat Toldot: Genesis 25:19-28:9; Malachi 1:1-2:7.
It is difficult to imagine two brothers who are as different from each other as Jacob and Esau.
Unlike the presentation of earlier individuals, the Torah describes the adolescent personalities and hobbies of Jacob and Esau. We learn that Jacob spends his time at home in his tent, while his brother spends hours in the field hunting. One must wonder: Why does the Torah feel a need to provide these details when it does not do the same for the others?
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German biblical commentator, suggests the Torah’s detailed characterization of Jacob and Esau conveys a particular educational message. In the great debate between “nature” and “nurture,” Rav Hirsch suggests both are at play. Jacob and Esau ended up on vastly different paths later in life as not only the result of different inborn personalities, but also because of the way their parents raised them as children.
While we hold the matriarchs and patriarchs in high regard and esteem, we realize they were also human and susceptible to the same mistakes as anyone else. According to Rav Hirsch, Rebecca and Isaac erred in their parenting methods. Rav Hirsch, referencing a verse from the Book of Proverbs, writes, “[Isaac and Rebecca] overlooked the cardinal principle of education: chanoch lana’ar al pi darko, educate each child in accordance with his or her own way” (Proverbs 22:6). Isaac and Rebecca failed to appreciate the distinct dispositions and skill sets of their two sons. While their model of education was successful for Jacob, it came at a cost to Esau, ultimately alienating him. In the end, Jacob carried on the legacy of his grandfather, Abraham, while Esau seemed to abandon it.
Rav Hirsch, therefore, stresses our responsibility when it comes to the education of our children: We must realize that each child has his or her own unique way of learning and experiencing the world. As parents and educators, we must be mindful of the fact that no two siblings or students are identical.
Not only does Rav Hirsch’s message ring true for the education of our children, but also for each of us as individuals as well. Each of us has a particular set of interests and strengths. In our individual ways, we each find aspects of Judaism that speak powerfully to us, while we also experience elements with which we struggle to fully relate. Before we judge our religion to be irrelevant or unrelatable, let us keep on exploring.
We owe it to ourselves, as life-long learners of Torah and Judaism, to keep seeking out those avenues of our religion that light our inner sparks. It is our responsibility to take our own Jewish education and involvement seriously and to deepen our connections and our commitments to our faith.
Rabbi Jared Anstandig is rabbi of the Orthodox community at University of Michigan Hillel.