As I am the father of twin sons, this week’s Torah portion of Toldot, where we learn of the birth of twins Jacob and Esau, has a special place in my soul. Esau sells his birthright, and Rivka helps her favored son, Jacob, “trick” Isaac into a blessing. The portion ends with Jacob fleeing from his brother in fear for his life. Not exactly the ideal relationship that a parent wants between his children. Whenever I study this portion, I have the question that most parents have asked at some point: “Why doesn’t parenting come with a manual?”
When my boys were born, I asked that exact question of my friend and teacher, Rabbi Elijah Schochet. He suggested looking at Pirkei Avot, where it tells us “at 5 years the age is reached for studying the Bible, at 10 for studying the Mishnah, at 13 for fulfilling the mitzvot” and so on (Avot 5:21). But while that may tell me what their religious school curriculum needs to be, it really didn’t help. So I started to study what our tradition teaches us for parenting and found that, in fact, we do have a “parenting manual”: our sages, both ancient and modern.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch expounds on a verse from Proverbs to understand why Esau and Jacob had so many problems. “Educate the child according to his way” (Proverbs 22:6). Jacob and Esau had inherently different personality traits and qualities, and they shouldn’t have been educated in identical ways. We need to encourage the natural qualities of each of our children, and not try to raise them exactly the same. We must see each child as an individual, each as a unique reflection of the Divine that needs to be nurtured differently. Talmud teaches us, “A man should never single out one son among his other sons” (Shabbat 10b). I empathize with Isaac and Rivka: It’s a great challenge, particularly with twins, to not single out one child over the other, especially when they excel at something. But this is clearly one of the primary teachings in the “Jewish parenting manual,” and it is good advice for not just parents, but teachers of all sorts.
There are other pieces of advice for parents, including the Ve-ahavta, with the famous phrase that we should teach our children diligently the words of Torah. But while I found our traditional texts helpful, I found the words that most resonated with me not in our ancient texts, but in the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said: “Living involves responsible understanding of one’s role in relation to all other beings.”
If Jacob and Esau had been taught this insight by their parents, maybe things would have played out differently. When a person consciously recognizes and embraces his or her relationship with others, then all aspects of the person’s life are more in harmony. This is not just a “Jewish” teaching, but consonant with other cultures around the world. The Lakota people enter their ceremonies with the words “aho mitakuye oyasin,” which literally translates as “all my relations”; many tribes of both America and Africa have similar phrases. When we are aware of our relationship with the rest of life, when we recognize the Divinity that is part of everything and everyone, then we walk through life with more grace and joy — something that all parents wish for their children.
Like many teachers, I often say that I learn more from my students than they learn from me. I also agree with the many parents I have heard say that their children are their greatest teachers. In teaching ethical behavior (and teaching, by definition, must involve teaching by example, not just words), we learn how to live more ethically. In guiding our children into a relationship of faith and love with God, we deepen our own spirituality. This may be one of the deeper lessons we can learn from this parasha: to really learn the teachings that we would like to inculcate into our children.
Parenting can be challenging work, as is teaching of any sort. But it’s not just for our children. As Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young remind us, the children teach the parents, too. It’s hard work to allow ourselves to not only teach children, but to be willing to learn from them. Ultimately, however, it may be the most important work we can do in order to create peace and harmony in this troubled world.
“According to the labor is the reward” (Avot 5:23). May we all be blessed to see the results of our labor in our own lives, and in the lives of our children.
Rabbi Michael Barclay 4th of Kislev, 5781 Nov 20, 2020