The story of Yitzhak and Rivkah’s sons Yaakov and Esav is a compelling and difficult one. In this week’s Torah portion Yaakov , the eventual namesake of the people of Israel, is seen committing some very questionable acts. His brother, Esav, is clearly not the brightest human being, and we see Yaakov tricking him out of all of the inheritance that he believed he was to receive from his father. The first time, Yaakov takes advantage of Esav’s ravenous hunger, and makes him pledge his birthright for a bowl of stew. The second time, under his mother Rivkah’s recommendation and with a great deal of her help, Yaakov tricks his now-blind father into believing that he is Esav coming for his deathbed blessing. Not quite the behavior we’d expect or desire from the person who gave his name to Israel.
The name of this week’s parshah is Toldot, or generations in English. Prior to the story of Yaakov and Esav, we are given a narrative of Yitzhak repeating almost exactly his own father Avraham’s ambulations around the land of Canaan. On the same theme, our introduction to the story of Yaakov and Esav is focused on parental favoritism, Yitzhak favoring Esav, and Rivkah favoring Yaakov. When looked at from a zoomed out lens, we see what this parsha is really about – trans-generational relationships.
If we accept this as being the main theme of Toldot, then we should take a step back and not just look at condemning Yaakov, but instead figure out what the generational factors here are. It is clear that Rivkah pushes him towards some of his behavior, and it is also quite clear that his father’s affections are showered upon his brother and withheld from him. It’s a common trope today, in our post-Freudian world, to focus on how our parents messed us up, and how our foibles and failings can be traced back to their foibles and failings. Looking at Toldot, we see that this certainly isn’t a new idea.
So was this behavior Yaakov’s fault? Was it Yitzhak and Rivkah’s? Even Avraham and Sarah’s? Are our own failings ours, or are they our parents’? The Babylonian Talmud teaches us that a father’s responsibility to his son is “to circumcise, redeem, teach him Torah, take a wife for him, and teach him a craft. Some say, to teach him to swim too“ (Kiddushin 29a).
The first three responsibilities are the religious traditions of circumcision, redemption of the firstborn from God via paying a Kohen, and teaching Torah, but the last three are quite practical. The Talmud goes on into pages and pages of debating and interpreting what each of these things means, except for the responsibility to teach a child to swim in which there is no debate, only an explanation that “his life may depend on it” (Kiddushin 30b).
So it goes with the relationship between parents and children. For every attempt to do the right thing, either by teaching your child correctly, or living up to your parents’ expectations, there is always another way to interpret or debate the outcome. It is always possible to blame yourself for your child’s failings, or take credit for your child’s successes. It is similarly always possible to blame your parents for your failings, or to credit them your successes. In the end, one can never truly know which pieces of their parents’ parenting or their own parenting have affected the eventual outcome. Foresight and hindsight are both almost impossible when attempting to uncover which pieces of these very basic relationships will be highlighted in the future or have colored our lives.
I think that we can absolve Yaakov of at least some of his guilt through an acknowledgment of this reality of the relationship between the parent and child. This trickster-like behavior was clearly being taught to him by his mother as a way of gaining the attention and affection of his aloof father. In a way, we can see this parshah as all prelude to the fruition of Yaakov into Yisrael which comes later in Bereishit. By suspending our own judgment we can see the tragedy in the way the portion, which is Yaakov’s entire youth, plays out.
What a child takes from a parent’s attempts at education is out of control of the parent; what a parent does to attempt to educate a child is out of control of the child. In spite of our choices to trick our brothers, push our children to do the wrong thing, or disrespectfully swindle our parents, as we continue to live we gain new chances to do the right thing. The Talmud’s clarity on why it is important to teach your child to swim is clear. In my opinion, though, the swimming that the Talmud is referring to is not simply swimming. It is the knowledge one needs to continue moving forward in the world; to continue receiving the chance to make the right choices that will redeem his or her life. Yaakov’s redemption through his own actions later in the Torah show us that the indiscretion of youth, or the damaging meddling of passive aggressive parents, is not something that stands alone as a root of human development and personality. In Yaakov’s youth and family we can see our own, and in his later redemption we see hope for ourselves and our own families.