Toldot – Critique of a Relationship
And the lads grew up, and Esau became a man who knew to trap, a man of the field; and Jacob was a wholesome man, a dweller of tents. (Genesis 25:27)
Our sages read the description of Esau as a euphemism. Our tradition views Esau as an evil and selfish man. When Esau returns from the field weary and ravenous, begging Jacob for a morsel of food, Rashi reports that Esau was weary from bloodshed. The Midrash further notes that this was the day Abraham died, prompting Jacob to cook lentils – a traditional food of mourning. Abraham died a few years earlier than ‘his time’ in order that he should not have to witness his grandson Esau in such a wicked state. The Midrash makes other incriminating statements about Esau as well.
How is it that Esau came to be a product of the house of Isaac? How could such a man develop in a household that was committed to righteousness? We can understand how Ishmael came to be what he was in the house of Abraham. His mother, Hagar, was a maidservant of Sara’s and she essentially became a surrogate to raise a child on behalf of Abraham. Ignoring the Midrashic interpretation of Hagar’s disposition, Ishmael was raised by a woman who’s ways were not those of Abraham. But Esau? Esau was the child of Isaac born to Rebecca! Isaac and Rebecca are part of the founding trunk of G-d’s chosen people. How could such a child stem from this union?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks mentions the comment of the Netziv on last week’s Parsha, Chayei Sara. The reading concluded with the meeting of Isaac and Rebecca. Approaching the estate of Abraham Rebecca spies a man from afar, returning from the field. Upon asking who the man is she is told that he is Isaac, the master of the home. Rebecca covers her face with a veil. Isaac brings her into the tent, they marry and Isaac is comforted after the death of his mother.
Abraham likely courted Sara before choosing to marry her. Jacob first met his wife Rachel at the well, where it was love at first sight. When it comes to Isaac, however, his wife was chosen and brought to him by Abraham’s servant. He did not encounter her on his own. Furthermore, their first meeting, as described in the Torah, was that Rebecca ‘saw him from afar.’ He was distant, and not only physically. As a holy man, returning from meditation in the fields, Isaac was distant mentally and emotionally as well. His close encounter with death, having been designated as a sacrifice to the Almighty, placed Isaac’s existence on a plane more spiritual than others.
Interestingly, Rebecca’s first action upon learning that this was Isaac was to cover herself with the veil. Her response to his ‘distance’ was to further the distance by her own action. Isaac brought her into the tent and was comforted after his mother – perhaps because his marriage to Rebecca was an extension of his relationship to his mother. He didn’t know how to have another relationship.
It appears that this distance was prevalent throughout their marriage. Their communication was never optimal. Rebecca never confided her concerns about Esau to her husband Isaac. His chumminess with Esau was clear to all, as he enjoyed Esau’s hunting and was enamored with Esua’s bravery. He was blind to the darker side of Esau which Rebecca recognized, having come from a family with depraved values. When Isaac was old and wished to impart his blessings upon Esau, even then Rebecca chose not to interfere directly by exposing to her husband the true nature of Isaac. Instead she covertly arranged for Jacob to receive the blessings by impersonating Esau.
This episode, of placing Jacob in Esau’s place in order to receive the blessings, is symptomatic of the relationship Isaac and Rebecca shared throughout their marriage. This was likely the cause of Esau developing into the man he became. Had his parents been better communicators, had they put up a united front in the upbringing and disciplining of their children, Esau may have risen to be the worthy heir of Abraham and Isaac. Esau’s qualities would have been channeled to the good, with Esau becoming the master of his character rather than a slave to his urges.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch similarly levels criticism toward Isaac and Rebecca for not recognizing the differences in their two children earlier on. ‘And the youths grew up, and Esau became a man who knew trapping, a man of the field’ – Isaac and Rebecca should have noted Esau’s nature and accommodated for it. ‘…while Jacob was a simple man, a dweller of tents’ – clearly the two boys should not have been sent to the same school. Overlooking the natures of their children brought out even greater polarization and drove Esau to become not merely a wild man but wicked as well. Communication between the parents could have brought about a different outcome.
Too many relationships are strained, compromised or shattered by poor communication. The casualties and collateral damages of such relationships which need not have broken are as profound as they are many. This is not limited to marriages, but applies also to relationships within the family, in the workplace, and both inter and intra community. It is the duty of every person to learn how to communicate in a constructive manner. Some people come by it more naturally than others, but it is a critical life skill to acquire.
Our sages list numerous skills that one is obligated to teach one’s children. Teaching one’s child a trade is a mandatory part of upbringing. Otherwise, the sages comment, one has effectively taught the child to live by crime. Once sage even suggests that teaching swimming is an obligation, since one’s survival may well depend on an ability to swim. Learning how to communicate, in our age, is an essential tool for living a constructive and fulfilling life. It is a key to survival.