Saturday, November 25, 2006

Relating to the Avos

Posted by Benjy Ginsberg

Because this is my first post, I thought it would be a little strange jumping in right in the middle of Sefer B’Reishis. The truth is, Parshas Toldos is a great place to start. It’s really where the story of the Jewish people gets rolling. Now we can focus on Avraham’s immediate descendants and what makes them so fascinating. We will see bitter sibling rivalry, wayward sons, and tense interfamily relationships. Even the immortal Avos had their own human frailties - and Parshas Toldos really introduces that concept.

It is interesting to note that all the Avos had difficulties with raising their children. Yishmael and Esav, especially, posed unique challenges. Today we might call them “children at risk.” Maybe we'd read a special issue of a mainstream Jewish periodical dealing with the on-going crisis, or even attend a round-table or two. The Avos had no such luxuries. They had to raise their children with their own instincts, and, of course, a good helping of Siyata Dishmaya. It is not surprising that the Avos tried different methods in raising their children. What’s more striking is the pattern that emerges throughout Sefer B’reishis.

When Yishmael exhibits behavioral problems, Avraham is forced to banish Yishmael from his home. Although this act was against Avraham’s nature, sending Yishmael away was for the best (B’reishis 21: 10-12). Yitzchak’s physical and spiritual wellbeing was more important, and warranted Yishmael’s eviction. But as valid as Yishmael’s expulsion was, it was not without consequences - both for Yishmael, who grew up to be a bandit, and for Yitzchak.

Yitzchok’s take on the Yishmael incident was contrary to his father’s. Yitzchak sees only the finished product, an evil Yishmael that might have been saved with different parenting techniques. So, when confronted with his own troubled child, Esav, he did the opposite of Avraham. Yitzchok showed Esav nothing but love. There would be no punishment for this wayward child. He has a gift for hunting? Let him use it for good, instead of robbing people

Yaakov, who grew up in this environment, clearly felt ignored by his father. Here he was, the good son, yet his father favored his brother instead! It is no surprise, then, when Yaakov has an exemplary son, like Yosef, he favors him. You can’t ignore the good child to favor the others.

But Yosef bore the brunt of his father’s methods, and suffered from the jealousy of his brothers. In turn, when Yosef brought his sons, Menashe and Ephraim, to be blessed by his father Yaakov, he was adamant about not showing any favoritism to his sons. Instead, he placed Menashe on Yaakov's right side, his rightful place as the older son.

We have, then, a pattern not unlike Newton’s second law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Every method one generation tries, the next generation does the opposite. Now, we do this all the time. Any parent will tell you that 95% of the way they raise their children is either the same way they were raised or the exact opposite. But didn’t the Avos have better techniques?

It shouldn’t be surprising that the Avos acted this way. The Talmud in Sanhedrin (89a) asserts that “No two prophets relate their visions in the same manner.” Each prophet uses his own life experiences to construct a mechanism through which to interpret the word of G-d. And it is no different for relationships, whether they are parent-child, husband-and wife, or between siblings. This is, of course, a very human thing. But the Avos were not simple humans; their actions are magnified for us, so we can learn more about ourselves and the world around us. That way, we can improve our own relationships and come closer to G-d.


  1. Brilliant, my friend! Brilliant!
    I never understood Yitzchak's relationship with Esav. Now I do.

  2. Dear Mr (Rabbi?--if not, then with your Torah insights , you should be one!) Ginsberg--thank you for reminding us that even the Avos had to deal with the very practical day to day challenges of raising children, just as we do. One of the important messages that I took away from your drash is that we should strive to love our children, not so much equally, but uniquely--giving to each what is needed in accordance with their individual personalities.

    Rashi seems perplexed as to why the text reminds us that Rivka is called the mother of Esau and Jacob after Esau vows to kill Jacob. Do you have any ideas?

  3. Barry,

    Thank you for your kind words. Please call me Benjy, "Rabbi" is a little too formal for me. :)

    It's interesting that you mention the notion of loving your children uniquely. I think that is the Torah's prescription as well. (Chanoch L'naar Al Pi Darko - Guide each child on his own unique path.) The question here is how to deal with the rotten child. From the Haggadah we know that when it comes to the wicked son, we blunt (dull) his teeth. Sometimes evil must be dealt with, without regard to nuance. It is unclear from Chazal (there are conflicting Midrashim) as to whether Yitzchak was correct in his treatment of Esav.

    The Rashi you mention is often brought to show the depth of Rashi's humility: He's not afraid to admit when he doesn't know something. On a basic level, Rashi is puzzled because the Torah did not need to remind us that Rivkah was the mother or Esav and Yaakov; we knew this from the beginning of the Parsha! The term "Mother of Yaakov and Esav" is redundant.
    I think, however, that you are hitting on something much more profound, and that is for all of Esav's misdeeds, at the end of the day, Rivka loved him as any mother would, failings and all. That is precisely why Esav's marrying Hittite women was so bitter to both of his parents: You can't disappoint someone who has no hope for you to begin with.

  4. Thank you for these insights. We tend to overlook the family dynamics in these "stories", but you've illustrated how much there is to learn from them regarding family and other inter-personal relationships. Thank you and I'm looking forward to your next post.

  5. Thank's interesting to note that from a "family's dynamic" it may not just be the interplay between two individuals..father/son but the dynamic of the other members role in the family..think "triangulation" and the role of the Imahos in the dynamic..any thoughts ????
    Naomi Gordon

  6. Y'yasher kochacha Benjy. If I may take it one step further, there is a sobering message here. The reaction didn't work. Yitzchok's attempt of a different parenting style for Esav than Avrohom's (dictated by Hakadosh Boruch Hu) for Yishmael was doomed to failure. Yaakov's change from Yitzchok's was condemned by Chazal (Do not favor one child over others).
    Another point: In addition to Yitzchok's approach to Esav, we should consider Esav's approach to Yitzchok. The pasuk attrubuted Yitzchok's favoring Esav to Esav's actions (ki tsayid befiv). Perhaps Esav was reacting to the Avrohom-Yishmael relationship by seeing to it that Yitachok would treat him differently than Avrohom treated Yishmael.
    Noam Gordon

  7. Mrs. Gordon,
    You are right, of course, that there are many factors in raising children. Sibling relationships may have an equal, if not greater, role in child development. I was merely trying to point out that the tendency of children trying to correct their parents’ mistakes was apparent with the Avos, as well. It’s hard to say exactly how much weight external influences have, so I don’t really have a concrete answer to your question. Definitely food for thought, though.
    Regarding the Imahos – As you know, women are more often on the mark than men, and this is no exception. Both Sarah (Hashem told Avraham explicitly to listen to her) and Rivka were correct in their assessment of how to deal with problem children.

    Rabbi Gordon,
    You are right that Chazal say that Yaakov was wrong with his treatment of the Shvatim. And we know from the Psukim that Avraham was right with his treatment of Yishmael. Yitzchak’s conduct, as I alluded to, is a litle less clear. The Gemara in Sotah indicates that Yitzchak was correct, as he was trying to institute a policy of Docheh B’Smol Um’kariv B’Yemin. Its failure to implement was not Yitzchak’s fault. However, there is a Midrash in Koheles which seems to say the opposite. The Midrash quotes Hashem telling Moshe Rabeinu that were he to nitpick with the Avos, he could find fault with Yitzchak for loving Esav as he did, when he was clearly evil. As the Haftorah (of Toldos) says, Hashem loved Yaakov but hated Esav - and Yitzchak was required to do the same. So, I don’t know what the correct response is here.
    With regard to your second point, I hadn’t considered the idea that Esav himself was reacting to a previous relationship. Of course, children pick up behavioral patterns from all different sources. Thanks for the insight!

  8. Rafael Araujo11/29/2006 12:16 PM

    "...Rivka loved him as any mother would, failings and all. That is precisely why Esav's marrying Hittite women was so bitter to both of his parents: You can't disappoint someone who has no hope for you to begin with..."

    True. However, the order in the pasuk is Yankev Avinu first, then Rivkeh. Rashi comments there that this is because since Rivkeh was used to avodeh zareh, the order is to indicate that she was not as pained by Esav marrying a Chittis Was Rivkeh dissapointed? Sure - but not to the extent that Yitzchok was. So, while she loved Esav, she was not as concerned with this particular life choice.

  9. Rafael,
    Your reference to the Sifsei Chachamim on Rashi is correct: Yitzchak was more disappointed in Esav than Rivka was. Of course, Yitzchak loved him more, as well. And her not being bothered by the Avodah Zarah had less to do with Esav, than with the actual act of Avodah Zarah which she had more exposure to.
    What we didn't know before this Posuk was how Rivka truly felt about Esav. By showing feelings of bitterness, Rivka displays a level of attachment which we didn't explicitly know before.

  10. Rabbi Matis Wienberg has a theory that Eisav had a deep-seated hate for his mother. He quotes the Targum Yonasan that Eisav was born with teeth and he suggests that this was because Eisav did not want to nurse from Rivkah! It can at least be said that Eisav's not nursing must have had a negative impact on his relationship with her.

  11. Moish Ginsberg11/29/2006 3:30 PM

    Very interesting observations. It is clear that your parents did a tremendous job raising you as well.

    Do you perhaps have a smarter, funnier, better-looking older brother who could comment on the sibling dynamic in your own family?

  12. The best way to understand biblical style sibling rivalry is to try it out yourself. This is good a forum as any... :)

  13. I agree with Moish Ginsberg. Your parents raised you well - especially your mother.

  14. Further support of the point made by Anonymous about the importance of having a good mother can be found at:
    However, a minority opinion can be found that holds that having a good father is also very important:
    Apparently Moish Ginsberg loves his father very much and wanted to include the minority opinion.

  15. For a minute i thought we were going to have jerry springer, but i'm glad that it's turning out to be therapeutic.

  16. Didn't realize you were a Jerry Springer fan, Rabbi Gordon. Very impressive!
    Let's not forget that our matriach Sarah named her son
    Yitzchak because she appreciated the importance of G-d making her laugh.
    How's that for a radical concept?

  17. am i missing something?