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Toldot. How do you Educate Esau?

Our parsha this week narrates the story of two very different twins – Esau and Jacob. They look very different at birth and as adults, they adopt divergent lifestyles or professions:

וַיִּגְדְּלוּ֙ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַֽעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם ישֵׁ֖ב אֹֽהָלִֽים:

And the youths grew up, and Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents (Gen 25:27)

Rashi notes that their full nature emerged only AFTER they “grew up” beyond the years of their youth. He comments:

As long as they were small, they were indistinguishable in their actions, and no one scrutinized them to determine their characters. As soon as they became thirteen years old, this one parted to the houses of study, and that one parted to idol worship.

ויגדלו הנערים ויהי עשו: כל זמן שהיו קטנים לא היו נכרים במעשיהם ואין אדם מדקדק בהם מה טיבם, כיון שנעשו בני שלש עשרה שנה זה פירש לבתי מדרשות וזה פירש לעבודה זרה:

Based on this Rashi, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch makes an insightful educational comment:

As long as they were little, no attention was paid to the slumbering differences in their natures (see on V.24), both had exactly the same teaching and educational treatment, and the great law of education חנוך לנער על פי דרכו "bring up each child in accordance with its own way" was forgotten…

…When Father Jacob visualised the tribes of our nation in the sons standing around his death-bed, he saw not only future priests and teachers. He saw around him the tribe of Levites, the tribes of royalty, of merchants, of farmers, of soldiers. Before his mental eye he saw the nation in all its most manifold characteristics and diverse paths of life, and he blessed all of them…

… But just because of that, must each one be brought up לפי דרכו according to the presumed path of life to which his tendencies lead, each one differently to the one great goal [of divine service]. To try to bring up a Jacob and an Esau in the same college, make them have the same habits and hobbies, want to teach and educate them the same … is the surest way to court disaster.

… Had Isaac and Rebecca studied Esau's nature and character early enough, and asked themselves, how can even an Esau, how can all the strength and energy, agility and courage that lies slumbering in this child be won over to be used in the service of God … then Jacob and Esau, with their totally different natures could still have remained twin­ brothers in spirit and life; quite early in life Esau's "sword" and Jacob's "spirit" could have worked hand in hand, and who can say what a different aspect the whole history of the ages might have presented. But, as it was, only when the boys had grown into men, one was surprised to see that, out of one and the same womb, having had exactly the same care, training and schooling, two such contrasting persons emerge.

Rav Hirsch's words are critical for successful parenting, and an important reminder for all educators. We cannot educate or raise children in automatic fashion, with one final product in minds. We have to look carefully at each of our children, each and every one of our students and spend time thinking how their needs can be met, how each might be stimulated, challenged, supported, so that they may each reach their personal potential. Of course, this is easier said than done.

I am intrigued by Rav Hirsch’s forward-thinking here. Was it common in the 19th Century to assume that each child needed individualised education? Was the suggestion that each person bring his or her strengths to the fore and choose an occupation that would allow service of God in accordance with one’s personality a prevalent view? Furthermore, I sense that Hirsch is highly open-minded and unconventional when he imagines that with a different educational path, Esau might have become Esav Hatzaddik – a full partner in the family tradition. This is a powerful commentary.

So here is a fabulous discussion around the Shabbat table which should engage young and old alike:

  • Do you agree with Rav Hirsch that if Isaac and Rebecca had implemented a different educational approach, Esau might have turned out differently? (Why didn’t they?)

  • Is it all about the parenting, or do we find that people develop independently of their parents’ best intentions?

  • Is it easy to identify a child’s traits?

  • How can one identify which characteristics to enhance and amplify, and which other behaviours need to be curbed?

  • In short, is it fair to blame the parents?

  • Does our Jewish world encourage diversity of this sort? Yes/no? Why?

  • Can you identify a feature of the way your parents raised you which you would have wished be different?

I have been thinking about Rav Hirsch and his message. My speculation (I haven't done the appropriate research on the topic) is this: Rav Hirsch, if you read the Nineteen Letters, was deeply affected by the alienation of young people in an era of Emancipation. He saw how old educational messages were not getting through to the youth and they were turning aside from traditional observance. In this atmosphere he wrote his "Nineteen Letters" and I think that this is one of the issues on his mind in this passage. We cannot always assume that the messages, pedagogy and styles of yesteryear will work for today. In order to engage our children and students, we need to create fresh approaches to ensure that all young people can find their place in a world of Torah.

Shabbat Shalom!

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