Parshat Toldot – Rav Yonatan Horovitz
This shiur is dedicated in memory of my father, Reb Mordechai ben HeChaver Avraham HaLevi Horovitz z’l, whose third yartzeit is on 2nd Kislev 5764.
The relevance of this shiur to parenting will become apparent shortly, and it is an honor for myself and my family to dedicate this shiur to the memory of a devoted father, and upstanding member of Klal Yisrael Rav Yonatan
We grow up viewing the Torah as a guide to life, as the basis of our attitude to the world and as the work that sets standards to us to follow. As the first comment of Rashi on the Torah conveys, the five books of the chumash are not merely a set of laws but a blueprint for how we, as human beings and as Jews, should conduct our lives.
For those of us under the influence of Freudian psychology, and I hazard to suggest that we all are to one extent or another, parshat Toldot presents many difficulties. The methods employed by the main characters in the story to achieve their desired aims, worthy as these aims may be, leave us astonished at the lack of communication and basic misunderstandings that comprised the families of our avot. In this shiur we will attempt to explain one of these difficult narratives.
“The boys grew older, Esav was a man who knew hunting, a man of the field; Ya’akov was a “simple” man who dwelt in tents.
Yitzchak loved Esav for there was game in his mouth; Rivka loves Ya’akov. ” (Breishit 25: 27-28)
On examination of these verses, various questions arise:
What is the exact meaning of the phrases “a man who knew hunting”, “ game in his mouth” on the one hand and “a simple man” on the other?
Why did Yitzchak prefer the hunting of Esav to the tent dwelling of Ya’akov if that is what verse 27 implies?
Why is no reason offered for the love of Rivka towards Ya’akov?
All these questions lead us to the most obvious problem:
Did these parents choose favorites amongst their children? Can a parent’s love for their child be so simply bought based on one attribute or another?
Let us begin by taking a look at a selection of the comments of the mefarshim on these verses:
Rashi first explains that this distinction between the two brothers became apparent only after they became teenagers, at which point one turned to the beit midrash while the other pursued a life of idolatry. Rashi then interprets the phrases “yodea tzayid” and “tzayid befiv” with respect to Esav’s ability to deceive his father with words. Ya’akov on the contrary was an “Ish tam” unable to trick with words but rather was straightforward and said what he meant and vice-versa. The phrases “ish sadeh” and “yoshev ohalim” refer to the brothers’ preferred directions in life.
According to Rashi the meaning of verse 28 is quite simple. Yitzchak loved Esav because the latter deceived him into doing so whilst Rivka who saw through this charade, loved Ya’akov.
Ibn Ezra though taking a similar line to Rashi with regards to Esav’s ability to deceive Yitzchak, relates, in addition, to the more literal meaning of the text. He attributes Esav’s deceptive methods to the fact that he spent his time hunting animals, a livelihood which itself required deception in order to ensure success. In addition, Ibn Ezra maintains that Ya’akov was a tent dweller much like “yoshev ohel umikneh” (a phrase from Breishit 4:20), which refers to shepherding. If we are to adopt this approach then we have not two opposed religious paths as Rashi suggests, but two different choices of profession. This view, however, does not offer any explanation of Yitzchak’s love of Esav except that he enjoyed a good steak! While many carnivores may understand Yitzchak’s leanings we hope that the Torah is conveying a message somewhat deeper than our forefathers’ culinary preferences!
This problem is compounded by the interpretation of Chizkuni to verse 28. Commenting on the fact that the torah uses the past tense in describing Yitzchak’s love for Esav but the present tense in reference to Rivka’s love for Ya’akov, Chizkuni writes that Yitzchak did not love Esav constantly but only when there was “tzayid befiv” only when there was game in his mouth. Rivka’s love for Ya’akov, however, was unconditional. This explanation again leaves us wondering as to Yitzchak’s motives for his love to towards Esav though it does at least clarify the reason why the Torah offers no rationale behind Rivka’s love for Ya’akov; it was regular motherly affection.
If we are to find a more satisfying way of understanding both the words of the Torah and the wisdom of the commentators we have quoted, two options lie before us:
1) the phrase “tzayid” or the tendency towards that occupation is indicative of other traits.
2) Yitchak chose to love or nurture Esav for educational reasons not out of mere favoratism.
Let us examine the first suggestion. As we see later on in the parasha, Yitzchak chooses to bestow upon Esav the bracha of “veyiten lecha”. Without entering the question of the exact nature of this bracha or its comparisom to birkat Avraham which was subsequently bestowed upon Ya’akov, it is clear that Yitzchak had a reason for originally selecting Esav as the candidate to receive this bracha. Rashi’s comments quoted above explain how Esav succeeded in deceiving his father and thus Yitzchak wrongly assumed him to be worthy of receiving the blessing.
We could suggest that Yitzchak in fact saw potential in Esav, the hunter, which he did not find in Ya’akov the tent dweller. Ya’akov was somewhat of a passive individual, with much good intent, but few qualities which would make him a leader. Rav Adin Shteinsaltz points out in his book, Biblical Images, how Yitzchak may have seen in Ya’akov a character too similar to himself. Yitzchak sought an heir who would have fighting spirit, a charismatic leader who would be able to spread the message of monotheism to the uninitiated masses. Yitzchak therefore saw much potential in Esav which became apparent through his chosen occupation of hunting. Esav, with some careful counseling, could be persuaded to funnel his ambition and drive in a positive direction. This explains Yitzchak’s love of Esav as a demonstration of his belief that
His firstborn son could be his true heir.
Rivka, on the other hand thought and possibly knew differently. First of all she sensed that Esav’s traits were not enough to overcome his lack of discipline and his general attitude. He was a man of the field, not a philosophizing tent dweller. He was a businessman with few spiritual or religious interests. Ya’akov, though somewhat passive, could be nurtured into a man of greatness; the basis was there and we know that the Torah is full of reluctant leaders. Furthermore, in the back of Rivka’s mind was the prophecy she received about her sons “ verav ya’avod tzair”. She sensed that the younger brother, Ya’akov was the true heir to Yitzchak.
[This interpretation helps us to understand much of what occurs during the whole episode of the brachot but it is beyond the scope of this shiur to go into more detail.]
Our second suggestion follows a similar but opposing path. Yitzchak saw a problematic trait in Esav. He saw a son with great potential leading a life full of materialism and violence. He decided to give him extra affection and love in an attempt to redirect Esav’s natural talents. Yitzchak did not necessarily see Esav as his true heir but, as a father, he demonstrated concern for the education of his son and felt that he needed closer attention. It makes sense that if Esav is a little wild then the parent to whom he would relate better is the father. Yitzchak did not love Esav more than Ya’akov; he simply gave him more affection and attention because that was what was needed for the benefit of Esav’s upbringing and education.
Rivka’s affection for Ya’akov can now be explained as merely making up for the time that he could not spend with his father (Yitzchak was busy with Esav), or as the natural parent to nurture the more academic spiritually inclined child. As Chizkuni pointed out, the dwelling in tents which characterized Ya’akov, may refer to the fact that he was a shepherd. This occupation allows for much time to meditate and contemplate life while the flock grazes in the field. Ya’akov may therefore have naturally tended towards the more sensitive emotions of his mother, Rivka.
In summary, we have presented two alternative interpretations to these verses. Our suggestions do not contradict the mefarshim but rather place them in a broader context; that of the parent/child relationship. We can learn much from this episode about the need for flexibility in the education of our children The necessity to relate to the potential found in every child and the ability to nurture a child’s natural talents and tendencies is a challenge that we hope to meet and one that parashat Toldot sets before us. Let us pray that we can meet this challenge.