Why Did Isaac Love Esau?
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This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.
Even before their birth, Yaakov and Eisav struggled in the womb, destined to be eternal opposites. As they grew, Eisav became a skilful hunter who was loved by Yitzchak, while Yaakov was quieter, more prone to Torah study, and favoured by Rivka. Rivka’s favouritism towards Yaakov was encouraged by a Divine prophecy received before her children’s birth, revealing that her children would be the founders of two separate nations, with the older ultimately serving the younger.
And yet, despite the foretold ascendance of their youngest son, Yitzchak’s love for Eisav persisted. It persisted despite Eisav’s cunning personality and trickster nature. Despite the prophecy that Yaakov was destined to be greater than his brother. Despite the favour clearly shown to Yaakov by his mother.
Various interpretations of Yitzchak and Eisav’s relationship can help shed light on this peculiar dynamic. Rashi proposes that Yitzchak was actually deceived by Eisav, who displayed false piety. For example, Rashi says that Eisav would ask questions about tithing items like salt and straw, to mislead Yitzchak into believing Eisav was religiously observant. And, if you’re wondering why Eisav could not deceive Rivka, it’s suggested that she had experience seeing past deceptions from her time with Lavan – her conniving brother.
This understanding of the text assumes a certain naivety from Yitzchak, and emphasises the deepness of his love for Eisav.
Another perspective, however, suggests something very different – that Yitzchak knew the depth Eisav’s true nature and yet – he loved him still. This interpretation dovetails with Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook’s advice to love a wayward child even more than a child who stays on the path. Yitzchak’s love, in this interpretation, embodied the moral imperative of parenthood, to not give up on a wayward child. To love unconditionally.
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel notes that Eisav’s bond with Yitzchak was unusually deep, and he displayed exceptional commitment towards his father. Indeed, upon the strength of this bond, the Torah commands the Israelites to respect Eisav’s descendants, the Edomites, and to avoid waging war against them.
So what was the result of Yitzchak’s care for Eisav?
Eisav reciprocated Yitzchak’s love but remained Eisav the hunter, the man of the field, not the man to carry forward the demanding covenant with God – with all the spiritual sacrifices this would entail. As Rabbi Sacks explains, not all children follow the path of their parents. If Yitzchak hoped that Eisav would ultimately become just like his parents, he failed.
Still, there are honourable responses to failure. Loving our children, no matter what, is a praiseworthy response, for surely that is how God loves us.
Around the Shabbat Table
- What was the positive outcome of Yitzchak’s love for Eisav?
- Did Yitzchak and Rivka parent differently because of their own rebellious brothers?
- Rabbi Sacks questions whether Rivka told Yitzchak about the oracle. What do you think? Can you find other examples in the Torah where Rivka and Yitzchak speak to each other?
Parsha in Passing
Yitzchak marries Rivka and for many years they wait and hope for children. Finally, their prayers are answered. Rivka feels a struggle in her womb and, in explanation, God informs her that she will give birth to twins, the founders of two separate nations, with the older eventually serving the younger.
Eisav is born first, red and hairy, followed by Yaakov, who holds onto Eisav’s heel as he emerges. As they grow, Eisav is favoured by their father, while Yaakov is preferred by their mother. One day, Eisav returns from the field feeling hungry. Displaying little regard for his inheritance, he sells it to Yaakov for a meal of red lentil stew.
When Yitzchak grows old, and his eyesight weakens, he decides to bless Eisav. However, Rivka disguises Yaakov as Eisav, and Yaakov instead receives the blessing of prosperity and leadership. Eisav is distraught and begs for a blessing for himself. Yitzchak tells him he will live by the sword and serve his brother, but he will eventually break free.
Eisav vows revenge on Yaakov, planning to kill him – but not while father is still living. Rivka acts again to protect Yaakov, telling him to run away from home. She sends him towards her brother Lavan, and hopes that he will find safety there, and maybe also a wife.
Yitzchak: The second link in the chain of the Jewish nation. His eyesight dims but his love is unwavering.
Rivka: Behind the scenes, with an intuition like no other, Rivka is invested in the future.
Yaakov: Calmly and patiently waiting for his moment, and a soup-er lentil cook.
Eisav: Hungry for game, his father’s love, and a hot bowl of soup. Not hungry for birthrights.
There is an old adage: the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Meaning, children often resemble their parents in some way or another. Whether it’s in mannerisms, values, and so on, Yitzchak continued the trajectory of his father, Avraham, visiting Gerar during a famine, digging wells, and serving Hashem. By contrast, considering their historical legacies, one might think that no father and son could be less compatible than Eisav and Yitzhak. Yet, Eisav somehow managed to win the affection and favour of his father.
Rabbi Sacks explores this interesting contradiction. Did Yitzchak even know just how different and even immoral Eisav could be? Or, did he love him in spite of – or even because of – their differences? Rabbi Sacks concludes the latter. The love a parent has for their children should transcend differences. So too the love of God for the Jewish people.
- Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch once noted, if Yitzchak and Rivka had studied Eisav’s nature and asked themselves how even an Eisav could be taught to honour God… that mighty man would not become just a mighty hunter, but truly a mighty man before God. How does this philosophy dovetail with Rabbi Sacks’ point about Eisav?
Let’s play “Human Bingo”. Rabbi Sacks understood the nuanced relationship between Yitzchak and Eisav. We each have our differences, but connecting on our commonalities is often the best way to forge a relationship.
In this game, players receive bingo cards filled with various personal statements (e.g., “Has visited Israel,” “loves cooking,” “plays basketball”). The goal is to find others who match these statements. Players mingle and ask each other questions to discover who fits each description. The first person to complete a row, column, or diagonal line on their card shouts, “Bingo!”
This game can be used as a great icebreaker. It requires some preparation before Shabbat!
How can we love those who seem to have incompatible differences with us? It’s admirable to try, but achieving this can be challenging in the extreme.
It can often be helpful to begin by seeking to better understand the other person. Using open-ended questioning can be a really great way to do this. Here are a few examples:
“Can you share with me what you most believe in or value, and why those beliefs or values are important to you?”
Understanding Life Experiences: “What experiences have shaped who you are today, and how do you think they’ve influenced your biggest choices?”
Seeking Common Ground:
“In what ways do you think our aspirations or challenges might be similar?”
Yitzchak and Eisav were a father and son pair with very few similarities. Yet they found common ground and common respect.
Another practical takeaway from this week’s parsha is that of kibbud av v’eim. Honouring our parents is one of the Ten Commandments but a much earlier example we are taught of a child who honoured his father is Eisav, and the respect he gave to his father Yitzchak.
What would you say?
Here’s a story about a famous teacher whose name might ring a bell: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
Rabbi Sacks was a teacher, a philosopher, a parent, and someone who was always teaching kindness and truth to those around him. Sometimes, when we think of important rabbis, scholars, or even celebrities, it can be hard to imagine how they would respond to normal, everyday situations. Well, here’s a great story that encompasses the essence of Rabbi Sacks’ teaching.
One day, on a visit to a day school in North America, Rabbi Sacks sat with the educators to hear their questions and concerns. When their time together was almost up, one teacher asked Rabbi Sacks, “What would you say to a young student who tells you that he does not believe in God anymore, because one of his parents has died?”
Wow. Talk about a loaded question! And with all of the beautiful and grand works of literature that he has written, Rabbi Sacks could have quoted himself, the Bible, or any great philosopher on the importance of steadfast faith, of believing in God and staying true to religion no matter what. But do you know what he did when asked that question? Rabbi Sacks looked down at his shoes and paused for what seemed like a long time. Then he looked up and said simply, “I would give him a hug.”
What a response! It reveals a man who led with love and kindness, always. Rabbi Sacks embraced humanity in all of its forms. Just as Yitzchak continued to show love and kindness to Eisav, with whom his personality and belief system greatly differed, Rabbi Sacks knew how to support people in their most vulnerable and sensitive moments, and how to respond to each individual individually.
A natural teacher, a trailblazer, and a spiritual father to so many, that is one of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ many important legacies.
Question: Healthy twin boys are born to Jewish parents. Yet the younger brother has his brit milah one day before the firstborn. Why?
(See below for the answer)
This Week’s Parsha Puzzle Answer: The older twin was born at twilight between Friday and Shabbat. The younger twin’s birth takes place on Shabbat and so does his brit milah, when he is 8 days old. But the firstborn will have a brit milah on Sunday, as he might be only 7 days old on Friday, and he may be 9 days old on Shabbat (in which case, it is better to postpone than to hold a brit milah on a Shabbat. On Shabbat only 8-day-old boys receive a brit. Once it has already been delayed, it should also be delayed beyond Shabbat.
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks