Parashah Ponderings

Isaac’s Unconditional Love

Parashat Toldot / פרשת תולדות
Torah Portion: Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

This week’s Torah reading opens with the birth of the twins Jacob and Esau. Their mother, Rebecca, had been barren, and when their father, Isaac, pleads to God on her behalf, God responds and she conceives. The birth is not an easy one, however. The brothers are restless in utero, supposedly struggling with one another, and when Esau emerges first from the womb, Jacob is found to be grasping onto his heel.

Commentators throughout history have seen Jacob’s maneuver as an attempt to pull Esau back so that Jacob himself could be the firstborn. This view is supported by Jacob’s later efforts, first, to buy the birthright from Esau at a moment when Esau was hungry and weak and, second, to disguise himself as Esau so that Isaac, then blind, would give Jacob the blessing that Isaac had intended for Esau. One can only imagine how stressful it must have been on Isaac and Rebecca to raise these boys, one a boorish and impetuous hunter, the other, a conniving, cerebral homebody. In the end, it is Jacob who emerges as an adult with all the honor that would normally have gone to the firstborn, Esau.

Sadly for Esau, while Jewish tradition lavishes praise on Jacob, it portrays Esau only in a negative light. In their critique of Esau, the rabbis highlight Esau’s spurning the birthright and then marrying Hittite women to his parents’ chagrin. Since it is Jacob who ultimately inherits the covenant that God had made with Abraham and Isaac, Jacob’s faults are forgiven by the rabbis, who revere him as the father of Israel’s twelve tribes. Esau receives no such forgiveness, however, and instead, becomes identified with Roman oppression much later in history, (even though there is no good justification for this identification).

What is amazing is that, despite Esau’s shortcomings, Isaac loves and favors him over Jacob (Genesis 25:28). Commentators have minimized the significance of Isaac’s love for Esau by claiming that Esau manipulated his father into loving him. But not everyone sees Isaac’s love for Esau as empty or unmerited. Going against the grain of traditional biblical commentary, the Conservative Etz Hayim humash observes that Isaac may have appreciated the physical gifts in Esau that were lacking in himself (pp. 147-8). Other commentators credit Isaac for loving both of his sons unconditionally, even though each son troubled Isaac uniquely.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a brilliant scholar and the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, is counted among this latter group. In his essay, “Why Did Isaac Love Esau?” (See, Rabbi Sacks asserts that far from being deceived by Esau, Isaac knew full well who Esau was and loved him because that’s what Esau needed most. Rabbi Sacks writes:

It may be that Isaac loved Esau not blindly but with open eyes, knowing that there would be times when his elder son would give him grief, but knowing too that the moral responsibility of parenthood demands that we do not despair of or disown a wayward son.

There is great truth in Rabbi Sacks’s observation. Though parents need to enforce consequences — sometimes severe consequences — for their children’s misdeeds, these consequences must be dealt with an open heart that yearns for the children to grow into productive, caring, responsible adults. From such an open, yearning heart love flows abundantly.

It is my prayer that all parents will love their children as Isaac loved Esau and, moreover, that all people will extend this love to the rest of humanity. Much of humanity, through its indifference to suffering and its thirst for power, surely deserves the disdain of the civilized world. Nevertheless, let us keeping hoping that one day all will be right. That day will only come when we demonstrate the kind of love for humanity that Isaac had for Esau.

Shabbat Shalom,

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